Panhandling is one of those things that comes with living in a city. It isn’t always the most pleasant situation. A person, generally someone who is homeless, comes up to you at an intersection, on the street, or by the beach, and solicits you for money. It’s not always comfortable because people can feel obligated, guilty if they don’t give, sometimes afraid of the individual asking for money who may be mentally ill and may appear threatening. But is it illegal? And can it be illegal?
Fort Lauderdale is considering issuing new ordinances prohibiting panhandling in more areas of the city. They currently already prohibit it on beaches, beach sidewalks, and within 150 feet of Atlantic Blvd. or Seabreeze Blvd. The new proposals would increase the “no panhandling” zones to the downtown area (bus stops, public transportation, within 15 feet of any sidewalk café, any city parking lot, any city park, within 15 feet of an ATM or commercial or city building) and would also prohibit what they are deeming “aggressive panhandling” city-wide. The proposals define “aggressive panhandling” as repeatedly begging after being told no, approaching a person in a threatening manner, touching without permission, blocking a person’s path, and intimidating or forcing a person to give something.
The ordinances would make it a second degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine or 60 days in jail, if violated. But, the ordinances would specifically except street performers or people quietly holding up donation signs by saying that they are not panhandlers.
Courts have routinely held that such anti-panhandling statutes are unconstitutional in other jurisdictions. This includes an anti-begging ordinance in Jacksonville that was overturned in 1984 because it violated the right to free speech. But the Jacksonville ordinance banned all begging, not just in certain, defined areas. The Court said that a total ban on begging throughout the city was too extreme a burden on free speech.
St. Petersburg had a similar ordinance to the one in Jacksonville. It too prohibited begging throughout the city and it too was deemed unconstitutional in 1995.
Panhandlers were routinely arrested and prosecuted in Palm Beach County for “blocking the roadway” until the State Attorney’s Office declared that they would no longer pursue prosecution of these cases because of the Constitutional violation. People begging for money would be arrested, but a person who was asking for donations for a charity, such as military veterans, were not being arrested. This is called “selective enforcement”—when police and prosecutors take a law that is otherwise constitutional and make it unconstitutional by only apply the law to a certain group of people and not others. In this case, only homeless individuals were being targeted, which makes it unconstitutional. The State Attorney’s Office in Palm Beach County agreed and announced in 2010 that they would no longer enforce this law.
If Fort Lauderdale passes the new ordinances, they may be challenged on their constitutionality. Time will tell if they are deemed overly broad, as the St. Petersburg and Jacksonville ordinances were. In the meantime, people panhandling in Fort Lauderdale may be exposed to being arrested.