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Our View: How to stop panhandlers

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  • | 4:00 a.m. April 18, 2013
  • Sarasota
  • Opinion
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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on Sarasota’s panhandler-vagrancy controversy.

It’s probably safe to say a lot of Sarasotans curse Michael Barfield, the face of the American Civil Liberties Union in Sarasota. They associate him, and the ACLU, with being responsible for the proliferation this year of panhandlers at Sarasota’s street corners and vagrants trespassing wantonly on private property and scaring away people from Selby Library and downtown Sarasota.

In truth, Barfield told us in an interview this week, the panhandlers make him uncomfortable, too. He doesn’t give them money. When his 15-year-old daughter asked him one day while they were stopped at an intersection why he didn’t give money, Barfield says he told her: “I don’t know what the individual would use it for. A lot of them would anesthetize themselves.”

This is such an emotional issue.

We all hate making eye contact with those sign-carrying panhandlers trudging past our cars at stop lights. You sit and resist the urge to wind down your window and shout: “Get out of here!”

You feel they’re putting an ugly blemish on our beautiful city. And that’s why we want to blame Barfield and the ACLU.

But as much as you want to bus Barfield out of town, he believes in his civil-liberty soul panhandlers have the constitutional right to solicit. And if you’re a First Amendment purist, which we are, you also believe they have that right.

Still, there are ways to deal with this that will disincentivize the panhandlers and make them go away. And it appears City Attorney Robert Fournier may have found the remedy, which the City Commission adopted on first reading this week.

Ordinance 13-5060 (see box) addresses the issue from the narrow focus of public safety. As the ordinance explains, it’s a public hazard to have anyone conducting solicitations and transactions when cars are “on the traveled portion” of a roadway.

Sure, Barfield and the ACLU might argue it’s not a hazard when traffic is stopped at a red light. But the hazard is real when the cars are moving. A motorist never knows when something could go awry and a panhandler inadvertently falls or trips into oncoming vehicles.

Barfield agreed. “Narrow medians are an appropriate area to regulate,” he told us. “It does present a safety issue.”

Read the ordinance. Panhandlers and political activists still will be able to hold their signs on the sides of the roads and sidewalks. They still will be able to walk along the sides of the roads begging for donations and votes. But they won’t be allowed to transact a money exchange on the street.

Is this infringing on their constitutional right to free speech and to solicit? No doubt, that will be a question some court ultimately may answer. But on the face of it, the proposed ordinance does nothing to stop a motorist, say, from pulling into the Marina Jack’s parking lot, stopping his car and handing a panhandler a few bucks.

To be sure, the ordinance makes panhandling far less convenient; it doesn’t try to outlaw it.

As written, this ordinance casts a wider net. It also means the end to firefighters, police benevolent associations, veterans organizations and high-school bands and sports teams standing in the streets collecting money for their annual fund drives. But in terms of public safety, they are no different than Sarasota’s army of panhandlers. Life is all about choices.

When this ordinance comes up for second and final reading next Tuesday, it’s predictable Barfield will find fault and challenge it. On the public safety aspect, it’s difficult to argue against. But when you get to Section 2, which outlaws places for panhandling, the ordinance ventures into more questionable territory. If panhandling is protected free speeech, how can it be prohibited from public property or regulated by time of day?

City commissioners should continue to support Section 1 of ordinance 13-5060. Section 2 is likely to be problematic.

In the end, if citizens really want to minimize panhandling, the answer is all about managing human incentives. If Sarasotans want the panhandlers and vagrants to go away, quit reinforcing their behavior. Don’t give them an unearned dime.

Section 1. Chapter 23, Peddlers and Solicitors; Article I; Sec. 23-1. Solicitation and distribution on public roads.
(a) General Findings. The City Commission hereby finds that the high volume of motor vehicles traveling on congested roads in the city of Sarasota makes mixing pedestrians and moving or temporarily stopped motor vehicles in the same space at the same time inherently dangerous.

The City Commission further finds that pedestrians distributing materials to or soliciting from occupants of motor vehicles located on the traveled portion of public roadways, involving an interaction between the pedestrian distributing or soliciting and an occupant of a motor vehicle is hazardous to public safety — both for occupants of motor vehicles and for pedestrians engaging in such distribution or solicitation.

The City Commission further finds that the prohibitions set forth in this ordinance are narrowly-tailored … and that said prohibitions leave open ample alternative channels of communication throughout the city.

(b) Intent. It is the intent of this section to protect the health, safety and general welfare of the citizens of the city of Sarasota; to assure the free, orderly, undisrupted movement of motor vehicles on public roadways within city limits; and to provide for safety in the interest of pedestrians and occupants of motor vehicles located on public roadways within the city of Sarasota … This section is intended to apply evenhandedly to all persons who engage in the activities proscribed herein, regardless of their message.

(d) Prohibitions.
(1) No pedestrian shall go upon any public roadway or alongside any public roadway for the purpose of:
a. Soliciting or attempting to solicit donations, contributions, employment, business or sales or exchanges of any kind from an occupant of a motor vehicle when the motor vehicle is on the traveled portion of the public roadway and when the solicitation or attempted solicitation results in or is intended to result in a transfer of money or any other item between the solicitor and an occupant of the motor vehicle;

b. Distributing or attempting to distribute any product or material to an occupant of a motor vehicle when the motor vehicle is on the traveled portion of the public roadway and when the distribution or attempted distribution results in or is intended to result in a transfer of product or material between the distributor and an occupant of the motor vehicle;

(2) No pedestrian shall go upon any public roadway to advertise any message, including but not limited to any commercial or business advertisements, political or activist messages or any other message regardless of content when such is directed by the pedestrian toward occupants of motor vehicles that are on the traveled portion of the public roadway.
(e) The prohibitions in subsection (d) above shall not apply to:
(1) Solicitation or attempted solicitation of donations, contributions, employment, business, sales or exchanges of any kind directed toward pedestrians on sidewalks.
(2) Distribution or attempted distribution of any product or material to pedestrians on sidewalks.
(3) Displaying of advertising of any kind when the person displaying the advertising is not physically located upon the public roadway as defined above.

Section 2. Chapter 23, Peddlers and Solicitors; Article III, Panhandling; Section 23-7, Places of Panhandling:
(a) It shall be unlawful to engage in an act of panhandling when either the panhandler or the person being solicited is located at any of the following locations: at a bus stop; in any public transportation vehicle or public transportation facility; at a vehicle which is parked or stopped on a public street or alley except upon permit by the city manager; in a sidewalk café; on private property, unless the panhandler has permission from the owner or occupant; in a parking lot or garage owned or operated by the city, including entryways or exits and pay stations connected therewith; in a public park, beach, fairground or sporting facility, including entryways or exits thereto; or within 20 feet in any direction from an automatic teller machine, parking meter, parking pay station or entrance to a bank.

(b) It shall be unlawful to engage in the act of panhandling on any day after sunset, or before sunrise.


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