Schmoke cracks down on aggressive beggars Mayor calls on public to donate to charity, not to panhandlers

October 27, 1995|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Responding to growing complaints that aggressive panhandling is hurting businesses throughout Baltimore, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke pledged yesterday to step up enforcement efforts against those whose pleas for money amount to harassment.

But Mr. Schmoke also urged citizens to do their part to curb the problem by refusing requests from panhandlers for spare change.

City prosecutors will develop guidelines for police on what kinds of activities are likely to result in successful prosecutions, the mayor said. Police will use undercover officers to file criminal complaints that citizens may be reluctant to bring against panhandlers.

He also said the city would work with the Greater Baltimore Committee, the region's leading business group, in developing a community court to dispense speedy justice for minor crimes.

But Mr. Schmoke said it was "crucial" that people "just say no" to panhandlers. "Give money to charities but don't give the money directly to panhandlers," the mayor said at his weekly news conference. "Don't give money to panhandlers because you're worsening the problem, not correcting the problem.

"If the money simply dries up, then a major part of this problem will be corrected."

Mr. Schmoke met Wednesday with Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier, City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy and Mary Ellen T. Rinehardt, administrative judge for the city's district courts, to discuss aggressive panhandling.

The meeting came the day after about 200 Fells Point merchants and residents expressed their frustration about the problem.

Downtown hotels and Harborplace merchants also have complained that panhandling is on the rise, the mayor said.

Last year, a federal judge struck down a then-new city law that prohibited panhandlers from confronting passers-by in an intimidating manner, using abusive language and blocking their movements. The judge said the law unfairly singled out beggars from those who solicited money for political causes.

Yet in a related matter, the same judge later rejected a challenge to the "move-along" policy of the Downtown Partnership, a private organization that promotes business. The judge ruled that it did not violate the constitutional rights of panhandlers.

Mr. Schmoke said the city did not intend to violate the court's ruling but said some panhandlers were walking into businesses to solicit money from customers or demanding money from drivers to watch their parked cars.

"That's going way beyond what their rights allow," the mayor said.

Recently, four Fells Point panhandlers were arrested for soliciting money from people to watch their parked cars. The charge: operating a public garage without a license.

Efforts to reach the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland yesterday for comment on the city's stepped-up efforts against aggressive panhandling were unsuccessful.

In a commentary last year after the federal court rulings, Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the state ACLU, said the Constitution guarantees the right to solicit money for political causes or private use.

But he said the government also had the right to "protect its citizens from aggressive conduct that sometimes accompanies panhandling."

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