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City leaders say repealing panhandling regulation will have minimal impact but will help avoid lawsuits

Sign asking for money (photo via Maarten van den Heuvel/Unsplash)

Alexandria’s City Council is taking its anti-panhandling ordinance off the books, but city leaders said at a meeting last night the actual impact of the change should be minimal.

City Attorney Joanna Anderson noted that the panhandling change is part of an update to bring obsolete sections of the city code in line with evolving case law.

“Current city code does not outright prohibit panhandling,” Anderson said. “It regulates panhandling in ways that are different than other people in the public right of way, and that’s the type of regulation found to be unconstitutional in other places.”

Anderson said, like signs and noise, the city can’t discriminate in the type of speech it regulates.

“You can’t regulate certain types of speakers differently than other people in the public right of way; that’s where it causes the First Amendment concern,” Anderson said. “There shouldn’t be a law specific to panhandlers: it’s the content of what the person is doing in the right of way, just like the content of the sign that we’re not allowed to regulate or the content of the noise that comes out of something that we’re not allowed to regulate, we have to just be regulating the action.

Anderson said other sections of the code govern things like blocking the public right of way or behaving aggressively — which can still be considered assault — but that functionally repealing this section will do little to change current practices.

At the same time, Anderson said the panhandling legislation still being on the books puts the city at risk of potential lawsuits.

One of the few areas city staff said isn’t covered by other existing city code is the provision of being unable to panhandle within 15 feet of an ATM. Now, panhandlers can solicit within 15 feet of an ATM, but staff said that’s in line with current case law concerning the First Amendment. Anderson said the city would have to ban all conversation within 15 feet of an ATM, and Mayor Justin Wilson noted that the city’s authority to do so is dubious at best.

“We don’t have the ability to regulate just panhandlers in front of ATMs,” Anderson said.

City Council member Alyia Gaskins said some of the communication city leaders received about the panhandling vote was frustrating and dehumanizing toward those panhandling in Alexandria.

“Some of the emails and communications we received related to these proposed changes were just, in some cases, quite troubling,” Gaskins said. “When we read through some of them, it was really disturbing the way people were criminalizing or stereotyping folks for literally just trying to survive, or making assumptions that because they do one behavior, they’re automatically going to do X, Y or Z behaviors. Just because you are unhoused doesn’t mean you’re a criminal. Just because you panhandle doesn’t mean you’re aggressive.”

The proposed repeal of the panhandling ordinance is scheduled for a final vote at the City Council meeting on Saturday, Oct. 14.

Image via Maarten van den Heuvel/Unsplash

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