Merchants take steps to deal with return of plaza bums

The St Augustine City Attorney, Isabelle Lopez, told Historic City News that she is relying on a decision in Homeless Helping Homeless, Inc. v. City of Tampa, Florida, No. 8:2015cv01219, Middle District of Florida, to instruct police that panhandlers are not banned in public places around the city.

Lopez’ legal opinion appears to be that the panhandlers, who have converged on downtown St Augustine in recent months, are largely exercising their constitutional rights. Since the Tampa ruling, Lopez says it is not clear to her if existing city ordinances are enforceable during this panhandler-pandemic.

She confirmed in a recent city commission meeting that police have been instructed not to engage beggars performing constitutionally protected activities unless they are truly involved in aggressive activity.

Shopkeepers, city residents, and attraction employees, whose complaints have been stacking up at City Hall lately, say they have rights, too. The City Manager, John Regan, and City Attorney may have forgotten that, but they tell Historic City News that they intend to take action to protect themselves.

Merchants in town have begun displaying signs educating tourists and others walking in front of their places of business that say it’s okay to say “no” to panhandlers. They are asking the public not to “contribute to the problem” of panhandling.

The hope is that if the money dries up, the beggars will move on to some place else. That remains to be seen.

The city ordinance that was enacted to protect citizens from the fear and intimidation accompanying panhandling, soliciting, or begging, makes it illegal to panhandle, solicit or beg in an aggressive manner on any sidewalk, highway, street, roadway, right-of-way, parking lot, park, or other public or semi-public area or in any building lobby, entrance-way, plaza or common area.

Chief of Police Barry Fox has said police will still be dispatched and answer reports of “aggressive panhandling”. So, unless panhandlers pick up paintbrushes and an easel, what constitutes “aggressive” and what could get them arrested?

  • It is unlawful to approach an operator or other occupant of a motor vehicle for the purpose of panhandling, soliciting or begging, or offering to perform a service in connection with such vehicle, or otherwise soliciting the sale of goods or services, if such panhandling, soliciting or begging is done in an aggressive manner;
  • It is unlawful to panhandle, solicit or beg in an aggressive manner on private property if the owner, tenant or lawful occupant has asked the person not to solicit on the property, or has posted a sign clearly indicating that solicitations are not welcome on the property;
  • It is unlawful to panhandle, solicit or beg on any sidewalk, highway, street, roadway, right-of-way, parking lot, park, or other public or semi-public area or in any building lobby, entranceway, plaza or common area in the prohibited public area. The city manager shall post signs in such area advising the public of this prohibition;
  • It is unlawful to panhandle, solicit or beg within twenty (20) feet of the entrance to any financial institution, any automatic teller machine, any parking meters, or parking pay stations.
  • It is unlawful to panhandle, solicit or beg at any lawfully permitted outdoor dining area or lawfully permitted outdoor merchandise area, provided such areas are in active use at the time.
  • It is unlawful to panhandle, solicit or beg at any transit stop or taxi stand or in a public transit vehicle.
  • It is unlawful to panhandle, solicit or beg while the person or persons being solicited is standing in line waiting to be admitted to a commercial establishment, or by touching the person or persons being solicited without that person’s consent, or by blocking the path of the person or persons being solicited, or blocking the entrance or exit to any building or vehicle.
  • It is unlawful to panhandle, solicit or beg with the use of profane or abusive language during the solicitation or following an unsuccessful solicitation, or with the use of any gesture or act intended to cause a reasonable person to be fearful of the solicitor, or feel compelled to accede to the solicitation.
  • It is unlawful to panhandle, solicit or beg while under the influence of alcohol, or after having illegally used any controlled substance as defined in Chapter 893 of the Florida Criminal Statutes, or to panhandle, solicit or beg after dark.

Comments