Last year, the Summit County Council looked at the issue of panhandling, on the rise in Montrose and the subject of increasing complaints from merchants and citizens. Fortunately, the council considered carefully how to move forward. The discussion paid off, legislation finally passed this week striking the right balance between the free-speech rights of panhandlers and the need for uniformity and control.
The council had considered licensing panhandlers, as do Akron and Fairlawn, even looking at a requirement for safety vests. Township officials (who lack the power to act on their own) counseled against going too far. As the American Civil Liberties Union correctly reminds, holding a sign in a public place is protected speech.
The legislation keeps panhandlers a safe distance from intersections (25 feet) and other locations, such as entrances and exits to shopping areas, banks and automated teller machines and outdoor restaurants. Panhandling will be barred from private property if the owner posts a sign. Violators can be fined, but not more than $100.
Fines of no more than $250 and jail time of not more than 30 days face those who act in an aggressive manner, for example, by touching, blocking a person’s path or making threatening gestures. Panhandling in groups of two or more also will be considered aggressive.
The new county law, affecting all unincorporated areas, brings needed uniformity to dealing with panhandling across townships, avoiding the patchwork effect when going from a city such as Akron and Fairlawn into a township. Townships wisely plan to ease into enforcement, allowing a month or two for township police officials to let panhandlers know there are new rules in effect.
As before, township police officers can enforce state laws against solicitation in public rights of way and, for motorists, against impeding traffic by stopping to give money. Both create traffic and safety problems. Together with the new county law, that’s more than adequate to combat the problems of panhandling.