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Front Page » Top Stories » City Studying Panhandling Bans By Designated Zone And Citywide

City Studying Panhandling Bans By Designated Zone And Citywide

Written by on October 4, 2007

By Catherine Lackner
Miami’s Downtown Development Authority learned last month that it may have two legislative avenues in its quest to prohibit panhandling in the central business district.

One measure would outlaw all panhandling in a designated part of downtown while the other would ban so-called "aggressive" panhandling citywide.

Veronica A. Xiques, a Miami assistant city attorney who is researching the issue at the authority’s request, presented draft copies of two prospective ordinances that differ in their approach to panhandling. Once the downtown authority agrees to pursue one, the City Commission must then vote it into law.

The first proposed law would outlaw panhandling altogether in a specified district of downtown, the boundaries of which have not yet been agreed upon. Though panhandling is included in the free speech protections of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, it can be outlawed from certain areas if it can be shown to be detrimental to economic development. The proposed ordinance establishes the rationale: "The City of Miami has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the downtown district. Given the City’s investment, the prosperity of this area is integral to the continued economic success of the City of Miami."

Meanwhile, the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says it appreciates the City’s desire to make downtown more attractive but calls the proposed measure "Draconian and oppressive."

Said Carlene Sawyer, chair of the Greater Miami chapter of the ACLU: "It tarnishes Miami’s image as a progressive, enlightened community that welcomes all kinds of people. The law’s un-American because it tramples one the most basic rights, free speech."

Setting aside a district in which people cannot ask for money, either passively or aggressively, could have unintended repercussions, she said. "This part of the ordinance is interesting because it would prohibit Girl Scouts selling cookies, students raising money for their sports teams and the Salvation Army ringing bells at Christmas."

In addition, "There are many sections of this ordinance that are unconstitutionally vague and overbroad," Ms. Sawyer said. "It does not well-define what the city is saying is aggressive or harmful." Judges have "routinely thrown out" such ordinances for these reasons, she said.

Ms. Sawyer county and city laws already in place can take care of aggressive panhandling. "It seems having police downtown to enforce them is what people are actually asking for," she said.

A similar ordinance has been enacted for a five-mile stretch of State Road A1A along the beach in Fort Lauderdale, which has been defined as a tourist center that is crucial to the city’s economic welfare, Ms. Xiques of the Miami city attorney’s office said. "We’re focusing on the Fort Lauderdale law," which is expected to withstand court challenges, she said.

Authority members briefly discussed setting up a Miami district that would run from Northeast Third Street on the north to the Miami River on the south, and from Northwest Second Avenue on the west to Biscayne Bay on the east. But it’s not yet known whether that would be a manageable district. The authority’s boundaries encompass 1.7 square miles and extend into the Brickell area.

The second ordinance would apply to the entire city and prohibit only aggressive panhandling, which the proposed law describes as: "Approaching the person being solicited in a manner intended to cause a reasonable person to fear imminent bodily harm or the commission of a criminal act; or is intended to intimidate." It also prohibits the panhandler following the person being solicited, having physical contact, making verbal threats, using profanity or blocking the sidewalk or street. Panhandling would be forbidden near automatic teller machines, walk-up or drive-up teller windows, bus stops, entrances to banks, stores, restaurants and office buildings.

Someone convicted under either ordinance could be fined up to $500 or be required to do up to 60 days of community service.

"We’ve been working on drafting an ordinance," said Joe Sanchez, Miami city commissioner and authority chairman, "but we’ve got to make sure it has teeth."

The aggressive panhandling issue surfaced in May, when authority board member Jose Goyanes said that patrons at his downtown restaurant, La Loggia, had been accosted, and that too enthusiastic, even threatening, pitches for money on the street had become a problem all over downtown. Miami has laws against aggressive panhandling, but they are not being enforced, Mr. Goyanes said.

Enforceable laws, including those in Kansas City, MO, forbid panhandling within 20 feet of a restaurant, parking garage, automatic teller machine or walk-up bank window, transit stop or property that has posted signs prohibiting the practice, Ms. Xiques said in May. Some laws have included traffic intersections in their no-panhandle zones.

But attention must be given to offender equality. Because of the so-called Pottinger Act, ordinances that disproportionately affect homeless people usually are stricken down.

"I believe that a well drafted ordinance embodying all of the District Court’s limitations will stand a constitutional challenge and serve the city’s interest of protecting its citizens from aggressive panhandling behavior," Ms. Xiques said in a memo.

The downtown authority agreed to study the matter further and will decide which action to take within the next few months.