By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
Panhandlers in Muskogee could have to apply for a permit and submit to a criminal background check before hitting the streets if city councilors amend an anti-begging ordinance.
There would be no fee for the permit, but failing to obtain and display the permit while panhandling could result in the filing of misdemeanor charges. The amended ordinance would authorize the city clerk to grant, deny or revoke a permit based upon certain criteria.
Applicants who have been convicted at least twice of violating the city’s panhandling ordinance within five years would be ineligible for a permit. Applicants who have been convicted of certain misdemeanors and felonies within a predetermined period of time also would be ineligible for a permit.
The panhandling ordinance bans anyone from approaching, speaking to or following a person “before, during or after panhandling” if the conduct would instill “a sense of fear or intimidation.” It also bans misrepresentations and begging on private property without permission; within 20 feet of a public rest room, automatic teller machines or bus stops; and on public transportation vehicles.
Assistant City Attorney Matthew Beese said that since the ordinance took effect in September 2012, police have issued four citations for violations. The first citation was issued Dec. 19, and the fourth was issued Feb. 18.
Maj. Reggie Cotton said that of the four offenders, two were arrested on complaints of aggression. Cotton said the contact police made with the four offenders seemed to have helped curb panhandlers’ aggressive tactics, the kind of conduct the ordinance targeted.
Cotton, who provided city councilors with an update Tuesday about how the ordinance is working, said patrol officers have reported less activity since the restrictions took effect. When police respond now to complaints about panhandlers, Cotton said, patrol officers have found no probable cause to make contact or issue a citation.
Although the ordinance appears to be producing the intended results, Ward III Councilor Randy Howard said the city needs to do something “to get a little more control” over the situation. He based his concerns on the need to promote public safety.
“I’m not trying to be cold-hearted — what I’m concerned about is public safety,” Howard said, citing some of the provisions of the proposed amendment to support his position. “This is something we can do to get a little more control.”
Beese, who drafted the proposed amendment that will be presented Monday to the City Council, said the permit requirement would allow police to make contact with panhandlers even if there is no probable cause to believe a crime is being committed. Beese said that if councilors approve the amendment, he would suggest using initial police contact as an opportunity to educate panhandlers about available resources for people in need.
Beese shared a brochure used by the city of Akron, Ohio, that he believes could be drawn upon to educate the public about giving to charities instead of panhandlers. The pamphlet also provides information to those who might be down on their luck about available resources they could use instead of begging.
Ward IV Councilor Wayne Johnson, who opposes the proposed amendment, said he would like to see panhandling stopped entirely. He said the amendment would create a class of professional panhandlers and would hurt those who might have a legitimate and immediate need for financial assistance.
Panhandling, however, is a protected form of speech that cannot be regulated out of existence. Courts have upheld some restrictions to varying degrees: content-based restrictions must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest; content-neutral restrictions must be narrowly tailored to advance a substantial government interest.
City officials contend that the city’s anti-begging ordinance, intended to promote economic development and public safety, is content neutral, prohibiting only aggressive conduct.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.