A quieter approach

February 03, 2004

BALTIMORE'S BUSINESSES are again trying to keep shoppers and tourists feeling safe while not falling afoul of the rights of panhandlers - and this time their plan works.

The City Council is considering an ordinance proposed by the Downtown Partnership that limits begging for money from dusk to dawn. Beggars could still ask for money passively, by holding a sign asking for it or by holding a cup, for example, and during the day they could still ask out loud.

This is a reasonable extension of the city's ordinance against aggressive panhandling, which makes it illegal not to take no for an answer, to follow or touch potential donors or to swear at them. That rule, which also sets physical limits - no begging near an ATM, by a bus stop or in a bus - is in effect at all times.

Remembering the city's first aggressive-panhandling ordinance, which was ruled an illegal infringement on free speech, and responding to complaints that harsh penalties would backfire, the Downtown Partnership met with advocates for panhandlers and with city officials. All compromised, especially on the penalty portion of the ordinance, which relies on the strength of a civil citation rather than a criminal charge.

That makes sense, because a criminal record might well make it more difficult for a panhandler to get a job - a goal the city would do well to foster rather than impede.

The current panhandling ordinance, with its criminal penalties, would remain on the books, though in practice criminal citations are rare because the person who is asked for money has to file a formal complaint and show up later in court to testify. Most aggressive-panhandling citations are civil citations, and those found guilty often are assigned to community service in lieu of paying a fine.

The Downtown Partnership has paired the citywide nighttime solicitation ban with another bill, aimed more at homeless people, that makes it illegal to sit - or lie down - too long in any of three business districts. Under this ordinance, officers must contact an outreach worker, who would try to persuade the person to accept a ride to a shelter or service provider rather than risk getting a citation.

Most panhandlers are not homeless, according to the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, though they may need mental or other social services. When it discusses the two regulations this month, the council should extend the outreach to panhandlers, too, to make a strong ordinance stronger.

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