Judge: Sacramento panhandlers can ask for money near ATMs

I’ve written a bunch of stories about the homeless problem in cities on the west coast. So when I first saw this story my thought was, ‘Oh, boy, this sounds like a terrible idea.’ But I have to confess that on second thought I’m not so sure. Maybe the judge got this one right.

A federal judge ordered an immediate halt Thursday to Sacramento’s ordinance against aggressive panhandling, saying “this is a direct First Amendment case” involving the free speech rights of individuals seeking donations from passersby.

U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the ordinance, which was adopted unanimously by the City Council last November…

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood said officials were “disappointed” with the judge’s order and would provide additional information to the court and seek reconsideration.

Wood added that she believed England “showed a great deal of understanding of the difficult position the city faces.”

“There is wide agreement that aggressive behavior that creates unacceptable harm to individuals and businesses must be addressed in a meaningful way,” Wood said in a statement. “The Court was sympathetic to the Council’s difficult task of grappling with these significant and complicated issues.”

I don’t want anyone asking me for money near an ATM, especially if that person looks like they live on the street and might be addicted to drugs or alcohol (and thereby not always thinking clearly). That seems like a potentially bad situation waiting to happen.

Obviously, if someone does and become too aggressive that’s a problem. If a panhandler touches someone or blocks their path or follows them in a way that’s threatening, that’s something which can and should be dealt with by authorities. I’m even in favor of cracking down on the squeegee guys who approach cars and demand money.

But if we’re just talking about someone sitting near an ATM at a grocery store exit with a sign, I’m not sure we should criminalize that absent other factors. Yes, the speech in question is begging and yes that’s a nuisance to most people, but the right to speak (or hold a sign) in a public space, absent other threatening or aggressive behavior, ought not to be criminalized. At least that’s what I’m thinking after reading about this.

At the same time, I’m sympathetic to business owners who worry aggressive panhandling is going to harm their investment. We can’t allow that to become the norm either and that probably means police are going to be involved since business owners would hesitate to take action themselves for fear of a lawsuit (or a crazy person). Police are going to have to weed out the aggressive individuals, who are crossing the line in other ways, and who may be repeat offenders from those who are begging but not really harassing anyone in the process.

Probably the best course of action would be to stop giving people money on the street and thereby encouraging their behavior. In many, many cases that money is going to be used to fund an addiction that is keeping that person on the street and likely shortening their life. It would be better, if you’re so inclined, to give that money to a charity which will help people in a responsible way that doesn’t feed their habit.