Bill targets panhandlers

Juveniles would face fines for soliciting along county roads

July 21, 2006|By ALIA MALIK | ALIA MALIK,SUN REPORTER

Minors soliciting money or donations from motorists on Anne Arundel County roads could be fined $100 if a bill the County Council plans to consider Aug. 7 is approved.

Council Vice Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, plans to introduce the legislation at the meeting. She said she intends the fine not to exceed $100.

"I'm more interested in getting children out of the median than punishing a parent, who I'm sure would pay the fine," said Vitale, an attorney.

This week, Vitale sent a memo with a copy of the draft bill for the council to consider.

"The council has said they would support a total ban [on road panhandling], so it's not that the minors are more prevalent," she said. "We are only allowed by state law at this time to address the juveniles. If we could address the adults, we would."

County Council member Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat, said she has some reservations about the proposal.

"I have concerns about who pays the fine, and if they're under 18, I assume it's the parents, but I don't know that," she said. "What I support is a total ban on panhandling, and we don't have the state legislation to do that right now."

Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks hailed the bill as a positive move toward an ultimate goal of banning all panhandling on county roads.

"I think the citizens in Anne Arundel County are fed up with panhandling at intersections all over the county," the Severn Republican said. "It creates a safety issue as well."

A violation of Vitale's proposed ban would be considered similar to a traffic infraction, and Vitale said she might consider revising the legislation to allow police officers to issue warnings. Citations for those 16 and older would be handled in District Court; violators under 16 would go to juvenile court.

Vitale got the idea for the legislation three or four years ago, she said, as she was driving with her husband to Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie. A pre-teen cheerleading team was fundraising on the median strip, and as Vitale sat at a red light in the left turn lane, one of the cheerleaders stepped out in front of her car.

"I thought, `Oh my gosh, if we had been moving, we would have hit her,'" Vitale said.

The road along which the mall is located, Ritchie Highway, has been the scene of numerous pedestrian fatalities in recent years.

Vitale's bill was made possible by a bill passed by the General Assembly in the spring giving the County Council power to prohibit minors from panhandling on roads; it takes effect in October. In an unusual deal, state Del. John R. Leopold brokered an agreement to add Anne Arundel to a Montgomery County delegation bill prohibiting those under 18 from panhandling on roads.

Although several council members expressed support for a total ban on panhandling at a work session in the spring, state lawmakers must grant that power through enabling legislation, which it has not done because groups such as the firefighters union and the Knights of Columbus would be deprived of their main source of revenue, Leopold said.

Leopold, a Pasadena Republican who is running for county executive, successfully sponsored legislation two years ago allowing the county to distribute licenses permitting only certain individuals to solicit money from drivers. If elected, he plans to implement that plan, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union threatened legal action against such a program, saying that it targeted the poor and the homeless and threatened free speech.

ACLU spokeswoman Meredith Curtis would not comment on the organization's position on the child panhandling prohibition, but said, "If challenged, a ban on children soliciting in the roadway would probably be upheld in court."

And that ban, Vitale said, is an important first step.

"It's not where I want to be, but it's a start," she said. "I'll take half a loaf right now."

alia.malik@baltsun.com Sun reporter Phillip McGowan contributed to this article

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