City considers panhandling crackdown

What will, won’t be allowed

Here’s a look at what would be legal and illegal under proposed panhandling regulations city commissioners are considering.

Would be illegal:

• A verbal solicitation for an immediate donation of money while on the streets, sidewalks and public rights-of-ways of downtown Lawrence. The downtown area is defined as Sixth through 11th streets from New Hampshire to Vermont streets. The ban would apply to all people, including charities, wanting to raise money downtown.

• Verbal solicitation of money on any public right-of-way during the nighttime hours.

• Aggressive panhandling, which includes touching a person while asking for money, following a person while asking for money, and blocking a person’s path while asking for money.

Would be legal

• Passive solicitations of donations, such as a person on the sidewalk holding a sign requesting money.

• Street musicians who accept tips, as long as they do not verbally ask for such donations.

• Salvation Army bell ringers, as long as they don’t verbally ask for donations.

• Charities who hand out pledge cards asking people to send money in at a later time for a cause. The groups, however, would not be able to ask for immediate donations.

Soon it may be illegal — punishable by up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine — to utter in downtown Lawrence the simple sentence: Can you spare a buck?

City commissioners at their meeting this evening will consider tougher panhandling regulations that would make it illegal for anyone to ask verbally for an immediate donation of money while on downtown sidewalks, streets or public rights-of-way.

In November, city commissioners directed staff members to come up with a new panhandling ordinance after hearing multiple complaints from downtown shop owners who said customers were becoming intimidated by the number of panhandlers downtown.

The proposed verbal ban has support from some commissioners.

“I don’t think we’re trying to create a limitation that is unreasonable,” said City Commissioner Rob Chestnut. “I think this is a case where the public welfare is definitely challenged and is definitely adversely impacted by some of the behavior we’re seeing.”

But members of the American Civil Liberties Union are expressing concerns that the proposed regulations would be an unreasonable limitation on people’s First Amendment rights to free speech.

“I think it is ridiculous,” Doug Bonney, chief legal counsel for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri, said of the verbal ban. “Banning this won’t address any of the real concerns people have, and it is a joke to say that someone is going to be terrorized if a poor person asks you, ‘Brother, can you spare a dime?'”

Bonney said his group would be watching the issue closely, and may file a lawsuit against the city if the ban is approved and vigorously enforced.

Downtown merchants, though, are supportive of the proposed regulations. They say the problem is that many panhandlers are not politely asking a brother for a dime, but rather are becoming belligerent in their solicitations.

The city already has a law against aggressive panhandling, which includes the touching of a person while asking for money, following a person while asking for money or repeatedly asking someone after being rejected. But merchants have said that law involves so much interpretation that it is difficult to enforce. Creating new regulations with a bright line of what is illegal should make for easier enforcement, they say. The ACLU says the city simply hasn’t enforced the law.

But merchants also are reminding commissioners that more than just panhandlers have rights that need to be protected in this issue.

“The shoppers have rights,” said Bob Schumm, owner of Buffalo Bob’s Smokehouse. “They have rights to privacy without being pestered. Shop owners have rights to expect people on the street to sell their goods to.”

City staff attorneys have pointed to other communities, including Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Atlanta and Kansas City, Mo., with similar bans.

But Bonney, with the ACLU, said he’s unaware that anybody has ever been prosecuted under the Kansas City ban. He said his group would challenge that law in court if it were ever used in Kansas City.