Horry County Attorney Arrigo Carotti put county councilmen on warning when it comes to the issue of panhandling: If they plan on restricting it through ordinance, a lot more work than just a simple vote is needed.
Carotti pointed to the city of Myrtle Beach which, in June, passed an ordinance that makes it illegal for anyone to panhandle within city limits at public or private parking lot, street ends, public parks, the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, the beach, any beach access and the boardwalk.
“Panhandling within the area creates a situation of unease and effects the quality of life and vacation experience for those here,” city attorney Tom Ellenburg told city councilmen in June.
Carotti said, however, it may go a little deeper than that and pointed to a U.S. Court of Appeals case where five “panhandlers” sued the city of Charlottesville, Va., claiming the city’s panhandling laws violated their rights to free speech and right to assemble.
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“The presence of homeless people begging in public places makes some people feel uncomfortable. But the First Amendment does not allow the government to ban speech simply to prevent discomfort,” Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia legal director, told its website publication in February when the ruling was filed. “Localities may not ban people from asking for money simply by invoking the magic words ’public safety.”
Carotti’s point to Horry County Councilmen was clear: Do our homework so the panhandling and free speech/assembly issue does not end up in court.
The Charlottesville suit focused on the city’s Downtown Mall, which is more of a pedestrian mall than a shopping mall, said Miriam Dickler, director of communications for Charlottesville.
She said Thursday that the ordinance, which was ruled lawful in U.S. District Court but overturned in the Court of Appeals, was painted as a panhandling ordinance, but really deals with aggressive panhandling more so than restricting a person’s right to assemble and free speech.
“What our ordinance is, is more about harassment... and violence,” Dickler said. “So it’s not panhandling, per se. That’s certainly how it got painted.”
Dickler said their case centered around the Downtown Mall where people were persistent in asking for money or donations. She said the city certainly stands by the rights of individuals to assemble and the freedom of speech, like to ask another person for money, but what it doesn’t stand for is when that question becomes harassment. In other words, to ask for a dollar is fine, but to get denied in that request and then ask for 50 cents and then a quarter is pushing it beyond someone’s comfort level.
The city of Charlottesville then went as far as creating a Downtown Ambassador Program, which, as Dickler puts it, “raises visibility of official presence.” These part-time city employees – funded partially by tourism funds and with some law enforcement funding – act as Polo-shirt wearing tour guides, but can also be the middle men between someone who feels they are being harassed and the police.
“If the county is going to entertain passing such legislation, we’re going to have to have evidence and make public record of the problem,” Carotti said. “ ... Things such as it interferes significantly with normal traffic flow... that it creates a heightened sense of insecurity or alarm. That it creates public safety or a nuisance type concerns for the county.
“And even if we establish that, our ordinance is going to have to be narrowly tailored with the least restrictive means of governing this type of activity. We are not going to be able to simply say, ‘We think this might be a problem for the county because the city is prohibiting this activity. We think that that’s going to mean that this activity is going to migrate into the unincorporated areas of the county.’ That’s not going to be sufficient,” he said.