City Council weakens panhandling laws; approves sidewalk sit-lie regulation
Panhandling ordinance changes
The panhandling votes, deleting most of the city's solicitation laws, were based on recent court decisions, amplified by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), based on the precept that it's illegal for city ordinances to single out street begging because it's constitutionally protected free speech.
The deleted city laws - most of which had been on the books for many years - prevented begging in the following cases: on road medians, on a city bus, at a bus stop, at a sidewalk café, in a parking lot or garage, within 20 feet of an ATM or building entrance, in a car in traffic, getting in or out of a parked car, standing in a line or anytime after dark.
The City Attorney's Office is seeking to ensure that city laws are “content-neutral” regarding solicitation, according to staff attorney Anne Turner, and thus able to withstand a legal challenge.
Within this scope, the attorneys recommended - and council approved - a new law that prohibits the general act "aggressive soliciting," including actions such as unwanted touching, following someone threateningly, or “insults, taunts [or] challenges,” the law reads.
Solicitation is also still illegal on private property without permission.
The council vote on repealing the core of the old panhandling laws and approving the new aggressive soliting law was 5-3, with Jill Gaebler absent. Those agreeing with the City Attorney's Office were Council President Merv Bennett and members Keith King (representative of District 3), Larry Bagley, Bill Murray and Tom Strand. Opposed were Don Knight (representative of District 1), Andy Pico and Helen Collins.
The hope, as Bennett expressed it, is that through a “multi-step approach,” new city laws can be developed over time that will meet the narrower legal definitions. “I hope this is not the end of it,” he said.
Mayor John Suthers has previously pledged to have city legal staff keep looking into the matter, with the immediate priority being panhandlers on medians, because of the inherent dangers.
Knight said city attorneys are “jumping the gun” by unloading the old laws without fully researching all possibilities. He was particularly bothered that the city feels it's powerless to control potentially intimidating begging practices in public parking garages and buses.
He even suggested keeping all the old laws until new ones could replace them, but both Turner and Murray spurned that idea. “Is it worth it to keep them on the books and risk more litigation?” Murray asked.
Knight's response was that the city ought to consider appealing the court rulings, which have not been taken as far as the Supreme Court. “It's worth the price tag to protect our citizens,” he said.
Pedestrian access law
The new law to regulate people sitting or lying on sidewalks has been dubbed the Pedestrian Access Ordinance. Downtown merchants in particular have
The five people backing the law at the meeting included Police Chief Pete Carey and Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership.
“It's getting a little bit dangerous,” Carey said. “We've had a lot of confrontations with people sitting, kneeling or lying on sidewalks, especially near liquor stores and curb lines.”
Edmondson noted that if people want to sit somewhere, the downtown has “more public benches than anywhere else in the city.”
Carey outlined that his enforcement plan - assuming the law is finalized at a second reading vote by council in February - will start off with a “60-day grace period,” in which the law will be publicized in different ways. After that, police will issue warnings only, unless a person who has been warned does it again within a period of time (probably a year), Carey told council.
In such cases, the lawbreaker could face a fine and, potentially, jail time.
The law exempts (as an "affirmative defense") anyone who sits/lies because of medical/health issues, is shopping, is attending a street event such as a parade or festival or is waiting for a bus.
The council vote followed several months of consideration, including public meetings led by Councilmembers Strand and King that led to a softening of the original ordinance, which had called for stricter penalties.
Strand believes these efforts pacified some who were concerned about government overreach, but some people have continued their opposition - with 10 of them speaking at the meeting, including an ACLU spokesperson - arguing that the sit/lie dangers are overblown and the law will hurt the poor and homeless.
The enforcement areas were chosen based on the areas that get the most calls for sit-lie issues, Carey said. The Old Colorado City zone will be from 23rd to 28th streets and Pikes Peak Avenue to Cucharras Street.
Colorado Springs is not alone with the sit/lie issue. A New York Times article in 2012 indicated that it was already a nationwide phenomenon in American cities; also, the pro/con arguments stated in the article were similar to those heard locally.
Westside Pioneer article