Panhandling ban could spell legal trouble for Williams

Williams officials may possibly rethink the city’s new panhandling ordinance, which is set for second reading and adoption at tonight’s, July 18, City Council meeting.  

The ordinance, which bans soliciting within 15 feet of banks and automatic teller machines, is nearly identical to the ordinance against aggressive panhandling adopted by the Sacramento City Council last year that resulted in the city getting sued in federal court. 

The ACLU Foundation of Northern California filed the lawsuit in the Sacramento Division of the U.S. District Court last April on behalf of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, and James Lee “Faygo” Clark, a homeless activist who said the ordinance violated his free speech rights to seek donations from a passerby. 

The 12-page complaint called the ordinance a clear violation of the First Amendment right to free speech and one that “is taking away one of the few legal and safe means for homeless individuals to obtain money for necessities.”

The ACLU claimed that while the Sacramento City Council styled the ban as an “aggressive and intrusive solicitation” ordinance, it criminalized all solicitation, like sitting peacefully on the sidewalk with a sign and a cup, if it occurred within a certain distance of financial institutions, ATMs, public transit stops, and roadway medians.  

On July 5, U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. ruled for the plaintiff, stating, “this is a direct First Amendment case,” and issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the ordinance. 

Like officials in more than 50 California cities that have adopted the controversial panhandling ordinance, Williams Police Chief Ed Anderson had asked the City Council to take legal steps against aggressive panhandling and solicitations, after he received numerous complaints from local business owners and the general public regarding people begging for money at various locations in the city. 

“Panhandling, in general, can instill fear, intimidation, and a generally uncomfortable feeling in the general public,” Anderson said. 

While the judge agreed that it may be bothersome to some people to be approached and asked for money, the rights to free speech must be considered.

Williams City Manager Frank Kennedy said on Friday that he would ask the city’s general counsel to review the ordinance before tonight’s meeting. ν