Arundel officials seek to curb panhandling

License would be required to solicit funds along roads

August 31, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

It's a common sight: church volunteers, school kids and homeless people pacing road medians, extending buckets and hands so that motorists stuck at red lights can donate money.

However in Anne Arundel County, where the practice is highly visible on major roads such as Ritchie Highway and West Street, some local officials say such soliciting is a safety hazard and a nuisance to drivers. So they're pushing to make Anne Arundel and Annapolis the latest jurisdictions to limit the practice.

Five Maryland counties -- Charles, Harford, Howard, Prince George's and Washington -- have laws restricting solicitation on public roads.

Armed with new authority from the Maryland General Assembly, the Anne Arundel County Council and the Annapolis city council will take up separate bills to restrict soliciting funds on public roads and ban the practice among minors this fall.

"We want to make it not so attractive for people to come into the city and stand on the corner with a bucket," said David Cordle, the Annapolis alderman who plans to introduce the city version of the bill.

The bills would require individuals and organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and the county fire union to pay for annual licenses costing as much as $100 to solicit money along county and city roadways and median strips.

Such measures have drawn opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union, which has argued that they target poor and homeless people.

"It's patently unconstitutional," ACLU lawyer David Rocah said of the working draft of the county bill. "The government doesn't get to require licenses to engage in free speech."

Rocah dismissed arguments about safety, saying that if that issue were paramount, the bill would ban all panhandling on roadways. "If it's so unsafe, it's unsafe for everybody," he said. Rocah said that if the bills pass and the ACLU were asked to file a legal challenge, it probably would.

Rocah said the ACLU has not challenged the restrictions in other Maryland jurisdictions because, to his knowledge, they do not feature licensing components that could be open to government bias.

Howard County's restriction includes a clause for temporary exceptions.

Cathleen M. Vitale, a Republican representing Severna Park on the Anne Arundel County Council, plans to introduce the county version of the bill. She is concerned about the safety of children who ask for change along major roads such as Ritchie Highway and about the comfort level of motorists who feel harassed by panhandlers.

Vitale said she is not sure whether her bill would include waivers for people who can't pay the fees or those who can't offer an address and contact number.

"That's one of the issues we're working on. I want to be able to answer all of those questions" before introducing the bill, she said.

The bills flow out of state enabling legislation, introduced by Del. John R. Leopold and passed overwhelmingly by the General Assembly this year.

"I'm very pleased to see the initiative carried forward at the county and city levels," said Leopold, a Pasadena Republican.

Some county leaders favor stricter rules on soliciting funds.

"Frankly, I would like to see a ban altogether," said County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat.

Owens said she worries that Vitale's bill would burden county police, who would have to enforce the restrictions, and the workers who would process applications for licenses. She said she might support exceptions for established nonprofits.

Leopold sought a ban when he picked up the issue two years ago, but backed off slowly because of opposition from firefighters and members of the Knights of Columbus, who said their fund-raising efforts would be devastated.

Leopold and Vitale said they have heard numerous complaints from constituents who feel harassed by roadside solicitors, some from seemingly fabricated organizations. They said they have also cringed over the years at the sight of children asking for change along the narrow median strip of Ritchie Highway, where cars often whiz by at 60 mph and faster. In 2002, a man in a wheelchair soliciting funds died in an accident along Ritchie Highway.

Vitale said she recently received a spate of complaints from residents of the Russet area, who said panhandlers were shoving buckets bearing the slogan "Help the Children" in their car windows.

Vitale said she does not want to restrict legitimate organizations or prevent high school students from advertising car washes on the side of the road. Political candidates and protesters would not be prohibited from waving roadside signs under the proposed law.

"I do believe it will certainly limit the ability of the individual to solicit donations on the street corner," she said.

Cordle said panhandlers have not been a big problem in Annapolis but said he wanted to introduce legislation now to prevent them from flowing into the city to escape county restrictions.

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