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Panhandling draws fine line

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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 10, 2011
  • Sarasota
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Non-aggressive panhandling during daytime hours is becoming more and more noticeable in downtown Sarasota, especially at the Ringling Boulevard and Gulfstream Avenue intersections with U.S. 41.

Last week, numerous drivers reported a homeless man at Ringling Boulevard and U.S. 41; he was holding up a cardboard sign asking for money.

But, unlike some neighboring municipalities and counties, the city’s ordinance does not require the arrest of panhandlers for holding up such signs unless they are directly asking motorists for money. (See box for complete ordinance.)

Panhandling on city streets also is allowed during daytime hours unless it’s deemed to be aggressive.
Sarasota Police Capt. Paul Sutton said there’s nothing officers can do about panhandlers on street corners, holding up signs asking for money, unless they are harassing motorists with direct requests for help.

“Panhandling is a constitutionally protected activity in our city, but it can be limited,” Sutton said.

A city ordinance states that panhandlers within city limits cannot beg for money before sunrise and after sunset. Police officers also can prohibit aggressive panhandling, which is characterized as more than one panhandler begging someone for money at the same time. Panhandling also is prohibited on bank properties and near parking meters.

Sarasota County has a similar ordinance in place that doesn’t allow aggressive panhandling.

“All we can do is enforce the ordinances that are on the books,” Sutton said. “If all they have is a sign and they don’t ask anyone for anything while they are on the street, they are exempt.”

Meanwhile, several municipalities surrounding Sarasota are making panhandling an illegal activity — no matter what time of day it occurs. Some of those ordinances also don’t distinguish between aggressive and non-aggressive panhandling.

In October, the Tampa City Council voted 4-1 in favor of a panhandling ordinance for the city limits. That ordinance, which went into effect Nov. 1, prohibits any street panhandling six days a week, leaving Sunday as the only day the practice is allowed.

In Tampa, panhandlers must receive a warning, before being cited and having to appear in court, where they will face punishment ranging from fines to one year in jail.

The Tampa City Council action followed a June 2010 move by the city of St. Petersburg to implement a ban on any soliciting that involves requesting money.

Closer to home, Manatee County passed an ordinance in March 2007 that prohibits any type of panhandling near a roadway. It also forces panhandlers to stay at least 15 feet away from a road. In Manatee County, panhandlers receive a warning before facing either a fine of up to $500 or a 60-day jail stay.

Meanwhile, Sutton said he believes the city has an ordinance on the books that’s working, He noted that panhandling is not prevalent on city streets.

Through Oct. 31 this year, Sutton said 48 complaints had been registered in regard to panhandling, and that the majority of those did not involve panhandlers on city streets.

“That’s 48 complaints out of 53,000 complaints in total,” Sutton said.

“Panhandling shall be defined as any solicitation made in person upon any street, public place, park or beach in the city, in which a person requests an immediate donation or money or other gratuity from another person. Panhandling, however, shall not include the act of passively standing or sitting nor performing music, singing or other street performance with a sign or other indication that a donation is being sought, without any vocal request other than in response to an inquiry by another person.”

“It shall be unlawful to engage in the act of panhandling on any day after sunset or before sunrise. It shall be unlawful to engage in any act of panhandling in an aggressive manner, including any of the following actions:

• Touching the solicited person without their consent

• Panhandling a person while such person is standing in line and waiting to be admitted to a commercial establishment

• Blocking the path of a person being solicited or the entrance to any building or vehicle

• Following behind, ahead or alongside a person who walks away from the panhandler after being solicited

• Using profane or abusive language, either during the solicitation or following a refusal to make a donation or making any statement, gesture or other communication, which would cause a reasonable person to be fearful

• Panhandling in a group of two or more person.

• Panhandling near parking meters


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