Police chief: prohibiting all panhandling would be unconstitutional


Griffin Police Chief Steve Heaton said despite some citizen complaints regarding panhandling, the city does not have a significant problem with the issue.

“What we’ve had is centralized complaints of homeless folks sitting, standing and approaching people in the downtown area and at Wal-Mart. I don’t think I’d characterize it as a significant issue, but that probably depends on your perspective,” he said. “If you’re a business owner downtown and you have someone urinating on your front door step, it may be a significant issue, but as far as the significance of the problem, I don’t believe we have a large number of homeless folks accosting citizens.”

While some residents have called for an ordinance to prohibit panhandling, Heaton said a broad prohibition is not permissible.

“Panhandling is protected by the 1st Amendment. The Supreme Court has said it’s free speech, believe it or not,” he said. “There are several cases that address panhandling. They (the courts) say it (restrictions) have to be narrowly-tailored. The problem is we haven’t found how to do that. We (city officials) have been discussing how to best address the complaints we’ve received up to and including reviewing ordinances and laws related to this.”

Were officials to enact an overreaching ordinance that is found to be unconstitutional, though, Heaton said legal ramifications could result.

“What we don’t want to happen is to find if we charge someone, the court finds the law unconstitutional. Then we’ve created a liability for the city and its citizens, and the court may strike down our law,” he said.

He did say there are practical steps that can be taken to help minimize the issue of panhandling.

“In my opinion, part of the problem is we have people who are giving them money, food and assistance that enables them to continue what they’re doing. I need to make clear that this is my opinion, not the city’s,” he said. “To me, that’s an underlying issue. In many cases – not all, but many – if we don’t do that, they wouldn’t stay here. They’d go somewhere else where they’d be able to get money, shelter and food.”

Heaton stressed that does not lack compassion for those in need, but that he must balance it with the needs and wishes of the community.

“I think while we certainly should come up with a solution to the problem, we have to address the cause. It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to people in need – we certainly need to be able to assist people who have fallen into economic hardship or experienced a tragic event. However, I think that some of our homeless choose not to work and have other addictions that prohibit them from either working or living in a home somewhere – living with family,” he said. “Some of our homeless are not people who have fallen on economic hardships or experienced a tragedy. In some instances, I believe they make a choice. Those are the people I think create the issues for us. We do have some issues with the homeless, and the issue is specific to people who don’t want to work or accept help, but they will take a handout.”

Heaton said that the very nature of many Griffin residents creates unfortunate situations regarding panhandling.

“We have many people in our community who are very caring and giving and some people take advantage of that. I think we have to be very aware of those things and balance our caring and giving,” he said. “That’s the balance we have to strike – helping people and not enabling them.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: