The Raleigh City Council approved changes Tuesday to the language of the panhandling ordinance, about one year after stricter changes were put into effect.
City Attorney Tom McCormick said the changes are mainly to make it more defensible if challenged in courts, something faced recently by other municipalities with similar ordinances. To make the changes, law staff studied cities in which changes were made to comply with courts, such as Wilmington and Las Vegas.
Panhandling is banned in:
-Within 100 feet of any ATM
-Within 20 feet of any business, residence or outdoor dining area
Panhandlers will be in violation of the ordinance if:
-They are under the influence of drugs or alcohol
-Make threatening statements or use abusive language
-Beg in groups of three or more
Panhandling is allowed between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Violating the law is a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine and revocation of a panhandling permit.
“There are people who argue that you cannot require a permit [for panhandling],” McCormick said. “We think you can.”
Last year, the Raleigh City Council unanimously approved an amended panhandling ordinance that restricted times and locations panhandlers are allowed to ask for money. A previous law required panhandlers to apply for a city permit to beg.
The changes do three things:
- Limit the police chief’s discretion in issuing permits;
- Make it clear that a permit does not authorize begging where the panhandling code prohibits it;
- Make clear that the city is not regulating the content of a panhandler’s speech during an exchange.
The biggest change removes language giving the police power to deny an application. Instead, the wording, changed to “shall,” indicates the police will issue a permit within 24 hours unless the application contains a false statement or the applicant has a prior conviction of breaking a panhandling ordinance.
The second change clarifies that those with permits must still abide by the ordinance rules prohibiting panhandling in certain locations and at certain times.
McCormick said the final change is a language alteration to make it clear the city is not limiting free speech or dictating the type of words a person may use while asking for money.
“We’re not trying to get at in the exchange, what people say to one another,” he said.
The city has good reason to make its ordinance more defensible in court. In January, members of the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter to the Raleigh, Wake and Johnston counties, expressing concerns about the ordinance and its burden on First Amendment rights.
Kay Parker, legal director of the NC ACLU, said she has not received a response from Raleigh or an “adequate response” from Wake County to her letters.
Panhandling Permits Issued
2011 – 253
2012 (to date) – 62
Panhandling Ordinance Violation Charges*
2010 – 104
2011 – 247
2012 (to date)- 53
*Numbers only reflect the downtown police district.
“We feel that under the law, any permit is unconstitutional, that it’s an unconstitutional prior restraint on free speech,” she said.
The ACLU and other groups, including homeless people, have sued other cities and counties for violating first amendment rights with panhandling ordinances.
Raleigh Police’s Downtown District Captain, Kevin Craghead, said from his perspective, the ordinance has improve the quality of life for downtown residents and visitors. Raleigh’s transient population has doubled in his four years downtown, he said, and some of those people have mental health issues.
“We really made it a priority to do everything we could to ensure the safety of our patrons and reduce violent crime downtown,” he said, mentioning some aggravated assaults that took place in prior years.
Police representatives at a City Council committee meeting last week said they have passed out between 400 and 500 fliers educating residents and transients about the permitting process since the stronger ordinance was enacted.
Craghead said the issue requires a delicate balance between helping those in need and making sure downtown residents and visitors remain safe. Police encourage residents to donate money to charities who help the homeless and transient populations, he said, but he knows it is difficult.
“I’d be lying if I said I’ve never gave anybody money,” he said.
And as Raleigh continues to receive national accolades, more people — both transient and transplants — are coming. That presents a safety issue, he said, and the ordinance has made it possible for police to prevent panhandling in street intersections and charge those who are aggressively begging.
“Our city has changed dramatically in the last five years,” he said.