City of Griffin now prohibits aggressive panhandling

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

The city of Griffin Board of Commissioners has approved an ordinance prohibiting aggressive panhandling.
As specified in the ordinance,“solicitations for immediate
donations of cash, food or other things of value in an aggressive manner” is now a criminal offense in Griffin.
City officials made clear this ordinance is in response to residents’ complaints, but it does not prohibit all panhandling which has been ruled protected speech by the Supreme Court of the United States.
“We’ve gotten complaints, especially in our downtown commercial district, about panhandlers and panhandling is really First Amendment protected, so it would have to be
aggressive panhandling for us to prohibit it, and aggressive
panhandling is defined in the ordinance,” said City Manager Kenny Smith.
In drafting the ordinance, City Attorney Drew Whalen researched those of other municipalities and conferred with Griffin Police Department Chief Steve Heaton.
“We feel like it will (hold up in court),” Smith said. “I really haven’t had complaints of aggressive panhandling.
Most of the complaints we get are really pretty passive. This would certainly protect the public from anything
that turns aggressive, but I don’t remember any complaints
on aggressive panhandling.”
Some local governments have established ordinances that also prohibit panhandling in certain public locations, but Smith sad Whalen advised prohibiting this type of panhandling is the only option officials have.
“Yes, we considered it, but we felt like this ordinance would be better served. We’re essentially saying that panhandling in itself, if you’re homeless or in need or whatever, is allowed. It’s the aggressive manner that we’re prohibiting, which if you’re homeless or in need or whatever, it doesn’t give you the authority to be aggressive
or touch somebody or put them in fear of bodily harm,” Smith said.
According to the new ordinance, the act of panhandling is defined as, “any solicitation made in person upon a street, public way, public place including any park or plaza, or on public or private property open to the public for general business use in which a person solicits an immediate donation of money, gratuity or other thing of value from
another person, and includes,but is not limited to,seeking donations of cash.”
Now illegal in the city of Griffin is, “Panhandling while at any time before, during or after the solicitation
physically touching the solicited person without the solicited person’s express prior consent, so as to create fear or apprehension or bodily harm by the solicited person; panhandling a person while such person is standing in line or waiting to be admitted to a general business establishment, show or event; while waiting in a parked motor vehicle; or while occupying a standing motor vehicle, either in stopped or standing traffic on a roadway or in a
drive-thru line at a general business establishment; panhandling by intentionally and physically obstructing the path of the solicited person or blocking entry by the solicited person to any building or vehicle; panhandling while intentionally following behind, alongside or ahead of the solicited person who walks away from the panhandler to avoid being solicited; panhandling while using profanity or abusive language either during the solicitation or following a refusal to make a donation, or making any
statement, gesture or other communicative action that
would cause a reasonable person to be fearful for his
safety or intimidated not to make a donation; panhandling
in a group of two or more persons; or panhandling between the hours of 11:00 o’clock p.m. and 6:00 o’clock a.m.”
The ordinance goes on to specify what actions will not be deemed aggressive panhandling such as solicitations seeking a contribution or donation to be paid at a future date and time; the act of passively standing or sitting with a sign indicating a donation will be accepted and which may or may not be accompanied by the selling of an item of little to no monetary value, unless within 25 feet of a business entrance or an automated teller machine; the performing of music, singing or other similar street performance commonly
known as busking with a sign or other indication donations will be accepted; and the sale of goods or merchandise including food and drinks by a vendor during a sanctioned street festival or similar event.
The ordinance’s sanctions include a an initial warning
following by a citation to appear in Municipal Court.
The fine for aggressive panhandling will not exceed $1,000 “with the alternative of other punishment allowed by law in the event such fine is not paid; to sentence such person to community service work; or to impose a sentence consisting of any combination of the penalties provided for
herein.”
Furthermore, each act of aggressive panhandling will be considered a separate offense.
Like Smith, Heaton said he has received no official reports or complaints of aggressive panhandling, but has heard stories of it allegedly occurring, and he believes this ordinance respects individuals’ right to free speech while also protecting residents.
“Most of what we’ve been dealing with downtown and other places is not aggressive panhandling. It’s panhandling, but it’s not aggressive panhandling, but I have heard stories of
what I believe crosses over. I think in that aspect, I think
it will be helpful,” Heaton said. “I don’t know that it’s
gonna help us with what some folks have described that is going on in different parts of the city whether it be downtown or Wal-Mart because some of that is not aggressive panhandling, but it will certainly allow for us that in those cases where we can show the elements of that ordinance, we’ll be able to remove them from the area and stop them from the aggressive panhandling.”
He has already been preparing GPD officers on the procedural requirements of enforcing the new ordinance.
“We’re doing some roll call training on it and we’re going over it and of course we’ve placed it on our internal policy system so that the officers will have to read it and acknowledge that they’ve read it so they understand what the boundaries are,” he said. “What I don’t want to do is create a First Amendment issue by an officer not understanding what his role and responsibilities are versus
what their rights are.”
Heaton also stressed that this is not a singular approach to the issue.
“We’re not just taking an enforcement approach,” he stressed, adding that he along with other officials have been working with two different homeless coalitions. “We’re trying to address people who are in need, as well, so we’re doing both things. It’s not one over the another,” he said.
“We’re trying to be sympathetic to people who are in a bad situation or that need help from those that are just out making $200 or $300 because they don’t want to work.”

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