Bill seeks to restrict street panhandling in county

Push is to regulate groups soliciting along medians

February 15, 2004|By Liz Boch | Liz Boch,SUN STAFF

From the heat of August to the chill of February, Larry Foster walks along the intersection of Ritchie Highway and Marley Glen carrying bins of Tootsie Rolls. He knocks on car doors and, as the drivers roll down their windows, he hands out candy and they hand him change.

Foster and other members of the Glen Burnie council of the Knights of Columbus donate the money to special education schools and nearby churches. Last year, they donated $13,000 to the Ruth Parker Eason School in Millersville.

Although Foster has good intentions, some local officials are concerned about the growing number of people raising money or panhandling on Anne Arundel County roadways.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Feb. 15 Anne Arundel edition incorrectly reported details of a fund-raising campaign by the Glen Burnie council of the Knights of Columbus. The Tootsie Roll program runs from August through November; fund-raisers along roadways do not knock on car doors.
The Sun regrets the error.

Del. John R. Leopold, a Pasadena Republican, has introduced a bill that would allow the county to restrict soliciting along roadways and median strips to members of certain groups and who are at least 18 years old and have paid a fee of up to $100 for a county-issued license. The fee could be waived provided the group shows it cannot afford to pay.

Police officers can ask solicitors to leave a median if they deem it unsafe. Four other counties - Charles, Harford, Prince George's and Washington - have laws restricting solicitation on public roads

Frederick County is considering similar restrictions. And a more sweeping bill by Del. David G. Boschert, a Crownsville Republican, would ban all solicitation on road medians and along state highways.

Leopold said his bill is a compromise that would regulate a practice that is generating increasing complaints. He said he has no problems with legitimate fund-raising efforts by civic groups, but wants to discourage panhandling and fraudulent solicitation.

"Many citizens are intimidated or annoyed by people knocking on their windows and expressing distaste at not receiving funds from solicitation," he said.

Another goal, he said, is protecting the safety of solicitors and motorists.

"There are many ways to raise money, and you want to encourage ways to raise money that do not compromise safety," said Leopold, adding that student solicitors would still be permitted to ask for donations in parking lots and at grocery stores.

The bill is backed by the Anne Arundel County delegation and was discussed Tuesday by the House Environmental Matters Committee. The County Council would still have to approve the measure, but several members said they support the bill.

However, some argued that the bill could make it more difficult for small civic groups to raise money.

Marc Ellison, a solicitor for the American Rescue Workers in Baltimore, said the fee would hurt his church's ability to run its homeless shelter, soup kitchen and thrift store.

While canvassing the corner of McKinsey Road and Ritchie Highway in Severna Park, church members usually collect about $100 per person each day they solicit, he said. With around $5,000 in bills each month, it leaves little for materials, he said.

"We really depend on solicitation to fund our programs," Ellison said. The fee "would hurt us. Each dollar taken from a nonprofit organization hurts."

Erik Robey, a spokesman for County Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., said fee revenues would be used to fund the program. Enforcement of the licensing could take away from police department resources if officers are forced to make a choice between arresting a panhandler and other calls, he said.

Others argued that the real purpose of the bill is to ban panhandling.

David Rocah, staff attorney for the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union, called the bill unconstitutional because it imposes a fee on free speech and because it limits the organizations that can solicit funds to fire companies and charitable, religious, civic, veterans' and fraternal groups.

"They cannot permit solicitation to certain groups, excluding the homeless or anyone else," he said. "The First Amendment doesn't say you have a right of speech as long as you can pay a fee or convince some government bureaucrat to lower it."

Robey said the bill does not prohibit free speech, adding that the bill only requires licenses for those soliciting funds, not for those carrying a message.

"If someone wants to stand on the street with a sign, we're not banning that," Robey said. "We're not restricting someone's freedom of speech. What we're banning is panhandling."

A solicitation ban was introduced in the General Assembly three years ago, but died in part because of opposition from civic organizations. Several groups, including local firefighters, support this version, Leopold said.

Lt. Joseph Jordan of the Anne Arundel County Police Department said the department supports Boschert's tougher bill because of the potential for accidents involving panhandlers. For example, in 2002, a man in a wheelchair soliciting funds died in an accident along Ritchie Highway.

"Regardless of who it is, it's dangerous to be in the roadway," he said.

Motorists have complained increasingly over the years that they feel nervous about people approaching their cars and worry about causing accidents on the roadway, Leopold said.

He has campaigned along roadways and medians during election years, but has never solicited funds from motorists, he said. The bill would not affect others running for public office, he said.

Panhandlers most often are seen asking for money along Ritchie Highway at Jumpers Hole Road and Marley Station Mall and at Solomons Island Road and West Street.

Jay Patel, an employee at a Shell station at Ritchie Highway and Jumpers Hole Road, said panhandlers hassle his customers at least twice a day as they pump gas.

"It makes me feel uncomfortable," he said. "I don't know who they are."

Ellison said Leopold's bill could help drive panhandlers off of roadways while allowing legitimate civic groups to collect more.

"You get the riffraff out of the way, and if you're paying the fee the cops couldn't run you out," he said.

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