June 27, 2006 > 'Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?'
'Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?'
The race is on! Mom and the kids are leaving Safeway, headed for the car with a basket full of groceries. Nearby, a scruffy-looking character, working the parking lot, scans for the next victim of his or her panhandling scam of the month (no gas for the car, no food for the kids, a motel room for the night, etc.). With a flash of adversarial eye contact, mom rushes the kids into the car and swiftly unloads the cart. Just as the door locks engage and the contest appears won, a knock on the window proves otherwise.
An obviously false but well-rehearsed and semi-threatening pitch ensues resulting in the exchange of the first paper money to find its way to her hand. At this point, the only thought in mom's mind is to escape, hoping that the perpetrator will find another mark next time. These extortion artists come in all ages, shapes, sizes and colors, some polite, others abusive, with and without children, walking, running - even in wheel chairs. These are beggars working the streets, stoplights, parking lots and any other place where potential "marks" can be had.
Most of the marks can easily finish the story once these denizens of the streets mutter their opening line; the pitch has been heard over and over again. Although some panhandlers go about their business passively, holding out a cupped palm or quietly asking for a spare dollar, others are aggressive, emboldened by the discomfort of their targets. Panhandling is not just personally discomforting, it threatens the economic vitality of a community as well. People who feel unsafe in a particular location will avoid it. This lack of patronage leads to economic decline and conditions ripe for more serious crime. What can be done to protect our communities and citizens?
Although panhandler rights have been elevated to that of individual "free speech," communities have begun to draft ordinances that insist on an acceptable level of conduct from beggars. Model laws do not prohibit begging per se. Instead, they establish reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on the direct solicitation of money. In general, "aggressive" solicitation is prohibited including conduct that can cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm, damage to or loss of property, or intimidation. Continued solicitation after a negative response, intentional touching or interference with free passage of person or automobile is also prohibited. Some ordinances do not allow solicitation near banks, financial institutions, ATM's, pay phones, vendors or public toilets. Groups of solicitors may also be forbidden.
A tightrope act of enforcement grows from conflicting views between those who seek protection and shelter under a group's common interests versus others who treat communities as an assemblage of individuals with singular rights. In the past, "vagrancy" was deemed a crime although ill defined and unfairly enforced. Sweeping changes in the 1960s and 1970s led to drastically altered public order laws, eliminating economic status from the equation and focusing on actions instead. In California, vagrancy laws were replaced by disorderly conduct statutes.
Legal cases appear to separate public property into three categories: traditional public forum (streets, sidewalks, parks); designated public forum or nonpublic forum. In recent Supreme Court cases, ordinances outlawing solicitation on post office grounds and in airports have been upheld as constitutional. When not specifically prohibited, panhandling regulations must not suppress a particular point of view and they must allow communication of a legitimate message to the public. Solicitation by a charitable organization is judged by the manner in which representatives ask for donations rather than their affiliation with a group. Fraudulent claims and untrue statements to elicit sympathy and a donation can be termed a "misleading representation" and, by extension, theft. In some cities, a permit is required for continued solicitation as that becomes an "occupation," a business of sorts.
All of this brings us back to mom and the kids in the Safeway parking lot. What can mom do now that she has paid the price of passage? According to Fremont Police Sgt. Frank Dorsey, mom's best move is to contact the store manager about her experience. She could make a "citizen's arrest" of the perpetrator, but then is responsible for a court appearance.
Her best bet might be to complain to a store manager as they are constantly on the scene during business hours and the store holds an economic incentive. If management witnesses continued aggressive and obstructive behavior, they can either make a citizens arrest for trespassing, interfering or intimidating; or they can direct police to those causing trouble for the customers.
Sgt. Dorsey says a police officer can "act as an agent of the business," in a sense, by monitoring the area. He notes that, unfortunately, police service levels have dropped due to cutbacks in the department. So, often a call regarding misdemeanors and nuisances cannot be answered immediately. The good news is that a relatively small group of people are involved in this activity and many are well-known to police officers. Sgt. Dorsey notes that many perpetrators are substance abusers looking for cash to supply a drinking or drug habit.
Those interested in how combating aggressive panhandling should check with local law enforcement agencies to see if there is a loitering and/or panhandling ordinance and, if so, how to use its provisions as an individual or business to protect your community. This knowledge might well enable you to win that race in a leisurely stroll.