Panhandler limits sought

County executive wants to require permits for roadway solicitation

December 13, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

More than two years after his predecessor rebuffed his state legislation to license roadside panhandlers in Anne Arundel, County Executive John R. Leopold is dusting it off.

A former five-term delegate who took office last week, Leopold has asked County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson to craft a bill restricting solicitation along roadways and median strips to groups and individuals registered with Anne Arundel County.

Leopold, a Republican, said he envisions a permitting system that would function similarly to the request process for a one-day liquor license. He said fees would be nominal and could be waived for those who cannot afford to pay.

His goal is to cut down on the number of panhandlers on county roads. The practice is particularly prevalent along the Route 2 corridor from Annapolis to Glen Burnie and on Route 198 in Laurel.

"It's a serious public safety issue, and a serious visual public safety issue," Leopold said. "The citizens are clear that we should address this issue."

In the General Assembly, Leopold fought for years against roadside panhandling. He sponsored a 2004 law that would enable the county to begin a licensing program for panhandlers, but then-Executive Janet S. Owens did not support it, citing the administrative and enforcement burden.

The American Civil Liberties Union has said such a measure would constitute an unconstitutional limit on free speech, and nonprofit organizations have said a fee would be a burden to their fundraising efforts.

The county attorney noted that the Leopold-backed initiative has passed a legal review by the state attorney general's office. "We will do what the state simply said we may do," said Hodgson, who added that his office is conducting an independent legal review.

Hodgson said "it's possible" such legislation would be submitted to the County Council within the next couple of months.

At least six other counties - Charles, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Washington - restrict panhandling on public roads.

Leopold helped push through state legislation this year that allowed the county to prohibit those 17 and younger from soliciting on roadways. The County Council unanimously agreed in September to do that.

While Leopold applauded the council's effort, he said: "We are still left with 99 percent of the problem, which is the adults."

As a delegate, Leopold pushed for an outright ban on roadside panhandling - a policy that Owens supported - but he did not receive enough backing from the county's legislative delegation. Two organizations - county firefighters and the Knights of Columbus - have fought restrictions on panhandling, because they rely on the practice for fundraising.

While continuing to hold discussions with Anne Arundel's state legislators, he is seeking to test the limits of the enabling legislation he passed.

"I fully appreciate that a total ban would be easier to enforce," Leopold said yesterday. "But barring that, I would like to address the adult portion of the problem through permitting."

A majority of the Republican-led council supports an outright panhandling ban. Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, said a full ban is the "best alternative. But I would be open to anything that is drafted."

Dillon acknowledged the difficulty of building consensus with the state legislators and said he briefly discussed the topic with Leopold a couple of weeks ago.

"I know County Executive Leopold thinks that's a hard sale," Dillon said. "If it's not possible for a full-out ban, we need to do something."

Panhandling has become so endemic that some solicitors are fighting each other for spots on certain roads, Leopold said. On Jumpers Hole Road and Ritchie Highway, "it looks like they've taken up shifts," Dillon said.

Leopold said he suspects the administrative cost of a permitting system would be low.

"It's a small price to pay to ensure public safety on our roadways," he said.

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