I attended my local city council Monday in Haltom City (TX) to oppose a proposed panhandling ordinance. My major points were that the favorable portions of the law would be redundant to existing laws, the penalty is excessive, less-restrictive enforcement attempts have not been tried to achieve the city’s purported goal of reducing traffic, and it would be a blatant censorship of free speech. Despite no one from the city presented any evidence of higher accident rates, thefts or assaults at intersections where panhandlers frequent, the ordinance passed its first reading unanimously.
The text below is my pre-prepared remarks, but I didn’t read it verbatim.
I am here to speak against the proposed ordinance. The parts of the ordinance that I would think are acceptable, like restrictions on impeding traffic, posing a threat to people or trespassing, could be enforced with existing laws, but the rest is troubling or redundant.
The proposition says solicitation harms tourism and development. However, the city has prohibited or made other forms of trade that encourage tourism like food carts and street vendors more difficult, leaving only panhandling.
The proposition also says that solicitation “greatly increases traffic congestion and distracts drivers.” There has been no evidence provided to support this, and the police chief last week during the workshop didn’t mention how widespread this was or even if other less restrictive measures like the enforcement of existing laws against obstructing traffic or breaching the peace have been used to address the problem. (Update: the police chief during his presentation did provide sources for the nationwide demographics of panhandlers, so I revised my speech to reflect that.) I believe this ordinance would unintentionally add to traffic congestion when a patrol vehicle’s red and blue lights are active while writing the citation, more so than someone holding a sign.
The punishment is also out of proportion. The fine could be up to $500 plus court costs, which I believe would amount to 10 days of behind bars (as courts are required to give $50 credit per days served) as the likelihood of financially desperate paying the fine shouldn’t be expected, which will increase jail costs.
If someone asks for change for a ride at a bus stop, that would be illegal: 10 days in jail. To hitchhike after running out of gas would be illegal. Are the charities and local clubs we often see outside of Kroger’s going to think to get advanced written permission from the store manager as they would be required?
Most importantly, this ordinance has serious constitutional issues. Passing out campaign literature would be allowed, but holding a sign at a traffic signal asking for donations or for employment wouldn’t be. You can’t reasonably say they are fundamentally different forms of expression or pose any additional traffic problems. The ordinance would strip people of their free expression based on the content of their message and is overly broad to achieve the expressed intent of reducing traffic and improving public safety. And so far, the city hasn’t provided any sufficient evidence I think a court would accept to justify the double standard.
If you don’t like panhandlers, then don’t support them, and they will go elsewhere. You’re even free to hold a sign asking people not to donate. We do have people in our community who support them, and you would be violating our conscience to participate in that exchange by passing this ordinance.