Will $175,000 deter panhandling?

At its Nov. meeting, when St. Augustine city commissioners discussed the need for new regulations aimed at deterring panhandling, Melbourne-based attorney Michael Kahn said he was ready, willing and able to draft an ordinance consistent with First Amendment court decisions.

 

And commissioners seemed OK with his estimated $25,000 fee.

According to the city website, Kahn is “a well-known attorney experienced in First Amendment issues,” who can “craft an ordinance that will address panhandling in such a way as to withstand legal challenges.”

During a follow-up discussion at the commission‘s Dec. 11 meeting, Kahn said his ordinance language will not only protect panhandlers’ constitutional rights, but, “It will also protect all citizens, all business owners — all rights will be protected.”

Despite the attorney’s confidence at being able to create an ordinance that will stave off legal challenges, it’s likely the city will face a lawsuit no matter how skillfully the new ordinance is crafted.

So what happens when the $25,000 ordinance is challenged? No problem. Kahn said he would defend the city in court, to include an inevitable appeals process, for about $150,000. But in the end, at least, the city would prevail — even if it did cost taxpayers a cool $175,000 or so.

Right? Well, maybe not.

Noting the vagaries of evolving case law, Kahn indicated that no guarantees can be made because a constitutional challenge to the proposed new panhandling ordinance would take the city into “uncharted territory.”

From all accounts, Michael Kahn is a very competent attorney with more insight and knowledge about First Amendment issues than all city commissioners and professional staff combined. But taking the city into “uncharted territory” for what might cost taxpayers $175,000 — or more — is not very reassuring.

In addition to having Kahn create a new panhandling ordinance, the city wants to print and distribute flyers or cards of some kind suggesting tourists donate to local homeless agencies and nonprofit organizations, rather than drop money in a panhandler’s cup or cap.

As described on the city website, it will be “an educational campaign asking visitors to direct their donations to responsible organizations which provide services needed by the homeless and not to panhandlers.” Nice idea, but methinks the feel-good educational program will do very little to reduce panhandling in St. Augustine.

Imagine a couple visiting from, say, Muscatine, Iowa, being handed a flyer or card as they enter St. George Street from the south end, suggesting they donate to a local service agency or nonprofit organization rather than give money directly to a panhandler.

They’ll likely glance at what they were handed, continue their walk toward the Old City Gate, then maybe drop by Al’s for lunch. While they’re waiting for their meal they’ll read the material they had been handed earlier, find an agency or nonprofit offering an important service, then use their iPhone to go online and make a donation.

Sure. You bet.

In addition to educating the public, the city wants to provide panhandlers, vagrants and homeless with information that will help direct them to the right service provider. A noble and needed goal, and some folks might actually take advantage of important local services, but I think most flyers or informational cards will become litter on the street, blown along by the wind.

Meantime, panhandlers have a First Amendment right to stand or sit on public property (but not private property) and ask passersby for money. They don’t have a right to block sidewalk foot traffic — nor do they have a right to aggressively panhandle and follow you down the street, cursing and yelling if you ignore their pleas — but politely asking people for money is not a crime in this country.

I hope I’m proven wrong about the city’s planned “educational campaign.” And I hope Mr. Kahn’s ordinance language will prevail when someone decides to sue the city for depriving them of their First Amendment rights.

Unfortunately, it might cost $175,000 to find out.

Steve can be contacted at cottrell.sf@gmail.com.

 

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