For eight years, members of the so-called "Gift A Vet" charity collected donations in front of grocery stores in Los Gatos, claiming the money was going to homeless veterans. Last August the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit showed that the group couldn't prove that any of that money was helping anyone but themselves. After that, the group picked up and moved from their usual Los Gatos spot to a new spot near the Pruneyard Shopping Center in Campbell.
Frustrated viewers reached out to the Investigative Unit when they saw the group continuing to ask for money. They wanted to know why solicitors like Gift a Vet could keep operating even if their claims are untrue.
It turns out that a group doesn't have to be a registered charity or non profit to stand in front of a store and ask for money.
"People have a right to lie," said Law Professor Margaret Russell. She has taught for 25 years at Santa Clara University. "There are other ways of controlling that misbehavior, but people have the right to lie."
Russell said this applies even in a privately owned shopping center, so long as you're in California. The reason why goes back to a landmark 1980 Supreme Court decision with strong Bay Area ties.
"It started with dispute in California at Pruneyard Shopping Center with high school students who wanted to gather signatures for a petition," said Russell.
Pruneyard security guards kicked out the students, leading to a dispute that culminated in Pruneyard Shppping Center v. Robins.
Pruneyard argued that they could remove the high school students because the shopping center was private property.
But in California, said Russell, the state constitution "has broader protections for free speech than the US constitution."
The court ruled that this robust free speech protection could be protected even in certain privately owned spaces, like shopping centers.
Russell said the Supreme Court reasoned that "a shopping center, even though privately owned, is more like the village square so it's opened up to the public for reasons beyond buying at the store."
In California and a handful of other states, the semi-public nature of the shopping center means people have a greater freedom of speech than in more purely private spaces.
"Some big box stores like Costco," said Russell, "have been given a reprieve because they are stand alone stores, not shopping centers."
But, in the Pruneyard Shopping Center in Campbell and others like it, no such reprieve exists.
Meanwhile, the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department say they are continuing an investigation of the group but cautioned that "this type of investigation is time intensive and could not be accomplished at the moment of contact." The group hasn't been seen in Los Gatos since our first investigation in August.
The Investigative Unit attempted to call Gift a Vet for comment, but one of its leaders, Fallean Mintz, told us to never contact him again and hung up. Since then, the group hasn't been spotted in front of the Whole Foods in Campbell either.
Russel says stores can post strongly worded signs that inform they don't have to donate. "The stores have the right to put up signs to say, 'we have nothing to do with these people and we think they're frauds.'"
She says, the best way to avoid encouraging solicitors is simple: when in doubt, don't give.
Gift a Vet also goes by the names "Veterans Direct" and "United States Vet." Neither of those names are registered non profits.