Each February and March for the past six years Caitlin Mills, 16, and Abigail Mills, 14, have put a card table in front of their home in Hazelwood, Missouri, and sold Girl Scout cookies to drivers passing by. This year, however, the City notified their mother, Carolyn Mills, that the girls’ cookie stand violated city ordinances and must be shut down.
Today, the Mills family filed suit in state court to ensure that children in Hazelwood and all over the state will be free to set up similar stands in their own front yards.
Despite the fact that these stands are both common and harmless, recent years have seen a stream of news stories about one local government after another telling children that they must obtain special licenses and permits before setting up a stand – and some cities, such as Hazelwood, ban them entirely.
Still, notice of the city’s prohibition came as a surprise to Mrs. Mills. “It never even crossed my mind that my girls might need to get permission from the city before setting up their cookie stand,” she said. “I was even more shocked when city officials told me that you couldn’t even get a permit for it.”
The implications of this case, however, reach far beyond Hazelwood’s city limits.
For more than a century American courts adhered to the principle that people could use their property almost any way they saw fit as long as they were not harming anyone else. Despite this general rule, courts allowed governments to use the “police power” to create laws carefully designed to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. Over time, however, courts shifted from the presumption that citizens should be able to make use of their property to a presumption that government should be able to restrict its use. The issue in this case is whether state and local governments still face any constitutional limitations on their ability to control the use of private property.