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City Council to consider removing panhandling restrictions in Alexandria

A homeless woman in Old Town, Alexandria (staff photo by James Cullum)

Asking for spare change could soon no longer be a crime in Alexandria.

City staff contend that restrictions against panhandling are unconstitutional, violating the freedom of expression of those begging for money or help.

City Council will decide on repealing the decades-old ordinance next Tuesday (Oct. 10). It could mean an end to decades-long regulations making it illegal to ask for money 15 feet from an ATM, on buses and in front of Metro Stations, as well as on sidewalks.

“Repealing the City’s panhandling prohibition will ensure that the City is not engaging in content-based discrimination of speech against panhandlers,” City staff said in an Oct. 3 memo. “Such a repeal would nevertheless leave in place guardrails that are generally applicable to all speakers that are intended to provide safety, peace, and good order.”

Panhandling has been a Class 3 misdemeanor — second-lowest level misdemeanor with which a person can be charged — in Alexandria since 1994, punishable by a $500 fine but no jail time.

“(P)anhandling has become increasingly common in the city, and often involves aggressive behavior, including unwanted touching and verbal abuse,” notes that ordinance, which is signed by then-Mayor Patsy Ticer. “(T)he city council has determined that there is a need to protect residents of and visitors to the city from harassment caused by panhandlers, to preserve and improve the quality of life of city residents, and to keep the public spaces of the city safe.”

City staff now say that much of the behavior associated with panhandling is still illegal since it falls under different code statues. For instance, abusive language and simple assault and battery are still illegal, as is blocking a sidewalk and other public rights of way.

“Evolving Constitutional law has established that panhandling constitutes protected expression under the First Amendment,” City staff reported.

The following practices are illegal in Alexandria and are subject to the proposed repeal:

  • No panhandling by “approaching, speaking to or following a person in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to fear imminent physical injury, or the imminent commission of a criminal act upon the person or upon property in the person’s immediate possession” in any public place, on any public transportation vehicle, or within a Metro or other mass transit station.
  • No panhandling by “touching another person without that person’s consent” in any public place, on any public transportation vehicle, or within a Metro or other mass transit station.
  • No panhandling by “intentionally blocking or interfering by any means with the free passage of a person” in any public place, on any public transportation vehicle, or within a Metro or other mass transit station.
  • No panhandling by “engaging in any conduct with the intention of intimidating another person into giving money or goods to any person” in any public place, on any public transportation vehicle, or within a mass transit station.
  • No panhandling “within 15 feet of any automatic teller machine.”
  • No panhandling or receiving “money or any other item of value, while standing or otherwise present in a travel lane, from any operator or occupant of a motor vehicle located in a travel lane.”

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