The First Amendment protects the right of individuals to ask their fellow man for help, but once panhandlers cross the line in Williams they could soon be subject to arrest or fines.
The City Council last week introduced a new ordinance to try and crack down on the aggressive and sometimes threatening behavior of panhandlers who have no qualms about begging strangers for cash.
“There has been a deluge of those over in the business district,” said Councilman John Troughton Jr. The new regulations are in response to mounting complaints to the Williams Police Department about the overly aggressive behavior of people while asking for money, or immediately after being denied a handout.
“Over the past few months, we have received numerous calls for service from business owners and members of the general public regarding people panhandling in front of businesses, near the streets, being aggressive and endangering,” said Williams Police Chief Ed Anderson.
Aggressive panhandling is a legal term that refers to unlawful forms of public begging, although ordinances against such have been challenged in places like Sacramento, where opponents claim such laws criminalize homelessness, tend to be discriminatory, and are unevenly enforced.
Anderson, however, said the city is just looking for a legal tool to address solicitations that violate people’s right to conduct their business safely and without threat of violence.
City officials find the presence of individuals who solicit money from people at or near banks or ATM machines are particularly threatening because such activity carries with it an implicit threat. They also find it abusive for people to solicit where their targets are a “captive audience” and unable to decline or avoid the solicitation.
In addition to banning solicitation near banks, near ATMs, and inside restaurants, the ordinance will ban people from soliciting within the roadway, and near the entrances and exits of parking lots and structures, which officials said creates hazards and impedes the safe, orderly flow of traffic.
“It’s not going to prevent anyone from asking for help if they need help, it’s more just keeping people safe; keeping (panhandlers) from being aggressive and being intimidating, that kind of thing – like placing people in fear,” he said.
According to the ordinance, which will be reintroduced and likely adopted at the council’s July meeting, aggressive solicitation includes conduct that is likely to cause a reasonable person to fear harm to oneself or another, damage or loss of property, close physical contact or touching, intentionally blocking or interfering with free passage of a pedestrian or vehicle, using violent or threating gestures before, during, or after soliciting, as well as persistence and use of profanity. Once the ordinance goes into effect, Anderson said the Williams Police Department would be better able to respond to complaints.
“If we receive a report of someone aggressively panhandling or panhandling near the street or the bank, then we will go out and contact them and ask them to move along,” Anderson said. “If they refuse, they could be cited or arrested.”