Last week, Sarasota City Commissioners passed a new ordinance aimed at roadside panhandlers. The ordinance has generated a lot of commentary and criticism in the local community and may face legal challenges from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. In an effort to better understand the intent and ramifications of the ordinance, I contacted Sarasota City Attorney Bob Fournier via email to get his thoughts on the ordinance that reads as follows:
Ordinance No. 13-5060
AN ORDINANCE OF THE CITY OF SARASOTA AMENDING CHAPTER 23 OF THE CITY CODE TO ADD A NEW SECTION 23-1 TO BE ENTITLED “SOLICITATION AND DISTRIBUTION ON PUBLIC ROADS”; PROVIDING THAT NO PERSON SHALL GO UPON OR ALONGSIDE A PUBLIC ROAD TO SOLICIT OR ATTEMPT TO SOLICIT DONATIONS, CONTRIBUTIONS, EMPLOYMENT, BUSINESS, SALES OR EXCHANGES FROM OCCUPANTS OF MOTOR VEHICLES; PROVIDING THAT NO PERSON SHALL GO UPON OR ALONGSIDE A PUBLIC ROAD TO DISTRIBUTE OR ATTEMPT TO DISTRIBUTE PRODUCTS OR MATERIALS TO OCCUPANTS OF MOTOR VEHICLES; ALL AS MORE FULLY SET FORTH HEREIN; AMENDING SECTION 23-7 TO DELETE LANGUAGE THEREIN WHICH CONFLICTS WITH THIS ORDINANCE; MAKING FINDINGS; PROVIDING FOR A STATEMENT OF INTENT; DEFINING SPECIFIED TERMS; PROVIDING FOR SEVERABILITY; REPEALING ALL ORDINANCES OR PARTS OF ORDINANCES IN CONFLICT HEREWITH; PROVIDING FOR READING BY TITLE ONLY AND PROVIDING FOR AN EFFECTIVE DATE.
Joe Hendricks: What is the intent of the ordinance?Bob Fournier: The intent of the ordinance is stated in Section 23-1(b) on page 3 of the ordinance.
“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 designated roadways within city limits; and to provide for safety in the interest of pedestrians and occupants of motor vehicles located on designated 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.”
JH: Does the ordinance outlaw panhandlers in the median, but still allows panhandling while standing on the sidewalk or street corner?
BF: The ordinance makes it unlawful to panhandle (or engage in any solicition) while standing in the median and also makes it unlawful to panhandle FROM OCCUPANTS OF MOTOR VEHICLES while standing on the sidewalk/street corner.
However, the ordinance does not make it unlawful to solicit or panhandle FROM OTHER PEDESTRIANS while standing on the sidewalk/street corner.
From the beginning, the subject matter of the ordinance has pertained only to solicitation directed to people in motor vehicles.
JH: Does the ordinance prevent folks from holding campaign signs or protest signs while standing on a street corner---or along US-41 near the "Unconditional Surrender" statue in the case of the Friday anti-war protesters?
BF: The ordinance does not prevent anyone from holding campaign signs or protest signs while standing on a corner---or along US-41 near the "Unconditional Surrender" statue (like the anti-war protesters) because these activities do not suggest that the person with the campaign sign or protest sign is seeking to have a transaction with an occupant of a motor vehicle.
That is, as long as the campaigners and protesters are not trying to hand out literature to people in cars or to get donations from people in cars and are just holding their signs without any intent to interact with the occupants of the motor vehicles traveling on the road, then they are not in violation of the ordinance.
JH: Does the ordinance prevent the pizza sign wavers from doing their roadside signage?
BF: The ordinance does not make it unlawful for the pizza sign wavers from doing their roadside sign waving based on the same logic as stated ... above, i.e., as long as they are not distributing to or receiving items from individuals in motor vehicles traveling in the road.
JH: Does the ordinance prevent non-profit organizations from soliciting donations while standing on a street corner?
BF: Yes, the ordinance does prevent non-profit organizations from soliciting donations from occupants of motor vehicles while standing on a street corner (but does not prevent them from soliciting donations from other pedestrians while standing on a street corner).
This is based on the rationale that it is no less dangerous for someone soliciting for a non-profit charitable organization to be out in the roadway receiving money through the window of a motor vehicle than it is for a panhandler to be doing the same thing.
The exhibit behind the ordinance I've attached shows the roads on which the ordinance will apply. The City's Comprehensive Plan says that these roads carry the highest traffic volumes in the City and that is the basis for the correlation with safety. In other words, the streets with this highest volume of traffic present the highest risk to the pedestrian who enters them for the purpose of soliciting from people in motor vehicles.