Viewpoint: The City’s Forgotten Panhandling Ordinance

By Christopher J. Lewis

In a letter to the editor of the Pensacola News Journal (Support for ban on panhandling, May 20) Pensacola city resident Carolyn Fries begins, “I support the City Council’s decision to ban panhandling in downtown Pensacola.”

Fries never cites the law she supports but her reference is to an ordinance first effective on May 18 – Section 8-1-28 “Regulation of Conduct In The Downtown Visitors’ District.” The new law only applies within 30 blocks of the 25 square mile city. The Pensacola Police Department’s (PPD) enforcement of Section 8-1-28 is stuck in limbo because of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) complaint filed on May 17.

The ACLU’s three plaintiffs described in the complaint are suing the City of Pensacola and only Police Chief Tommi Lyter. Not sued are Mayor Ashton Hayward, Lyter’s direct boss City Administrator Eric Olson and Council President Brian Spencer who co-sponsored and signed the new law.

Fries makes the best use of each syllable in her letter painting a graphic word picture that would be familiar to those who have run the Palafox Street panhandler gauntlet. The gist is that Fries felt “accosted” by an unwelcome panhandler who approached getting much too close for comfort and telling lies in an effort to separate her from some hard-earned cash.

In the scenario described by Fries, the offending panhandler was not passively standing or sitting on the sidewalk politely holding a sign begging for money. Mrs. Fries’ husband who she was enroute to join earlier had his own dealings with the same panhandler.

City Attorney Lysia Bowling asserts that Section 8-1-28 is constitutional. However, at least seven words – “passively or through any manner of signage” – in the 1,721-word law may be constitutionally suspect in addition to being in direct conflict with another law that regulates panhandling citywide to include in all of downtown.

The city’s other panhandling law is the very clearly titled Section 8-1-25 “Panhandling.” It was proposed by Hayward and adopted in 2013. Only Councilwoman Sherri Myers opposed the law. Section 8-1-25 applies citywide prohibiting aggressive and unsafe panhandling and imposing other detailed restrictions.

For example, Section 8-1-25 prohibits panhandling within 500 feet of 13 intersections in downtown to include Garden Street & Palafox Street and Main Street & Palafox Street. The distance between the intersections is about 1,300 feet. As such, active panhandling is prohibited along most but not all of that stretch of Palafox Street.

Other specific restrictions prohibit panhandling within 20 feet of an ATM machine, at a bus stop, in a sidewalk cafe, etc. The law could also be amended to keep panhandlers 20 feet from a sidewalk cafe too.

Violators of Section 8-1-25 are subject to arrest and up to six months in jail, a $500 fine or both. However, Section 8-1-25 is also stuck in what Bowling recently called about Section 8-1-28 – “the status quo of non-enforcement.”

The ACLU has not challenged Section 8-1-25. Oddly, the ACLU does mentions Section 8-1-25 in its lawsuit against Section 8-1-28, but the Miami lawyer who drafted the complaint may not have actually read Section 8-1-25 its scope mischaracterized. Unexplainably, for more than three years Hayward has not allowed the PPD to enforce Section 8-1-25 as he swore an oath and the City Charter directs him to do – “To enforce the charter and ordinances of the City and all applicable County, State, or federal general laws, special laws or ordinances.”

If Section 8-1-25 is unenforceable, then perhaps the City Council should repeal it.