Proposed Anchorage law would ban curbside panhandling

Posted: Tuesday, May 13, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) An Anchorage Assembly member wants to outlaw curbside begging in the city.

Assemblyman Dan Sullivan said his proposed ordinance to ban panhandlers from standing close to the curb is needed to protect drivers and pedestrians.

Sullivan said he nearly hit two people while driving in the past year. The first was a teenage boy darting into traffic and collecting money for charity. The second was a woman so drunk she nearly fell into traffic, he said.

There are no statistics on accidents caused by panhandling or by drivers distracted by people asking for money or making other solicitations from the sidewalk. But Sullivan says that his near-miss with the boy collecting money must have happened to other people.

We can wait until someone is killed, or we can be proactive,'' Sullivan told the Anchorage Daily News.

As originally drafted, Sullivan's proposal would not only have limited panhandling by the homeless and firefighters filling the boot'' for charity, it also would have banned political sign waving and high school students hawking car washes from public sidewalks.

The original proposal raised concerns about restricting free speech, how to deal with begging and whether such a broad ban on public behavior is necessary to deal with a public safety problem of uncertain size.

Friday, Sullivan changed the proposed ordinance so that it would limit panhandling and other solicitations only within four feet of the curb. Most sidewalks are 6 to 8 feet wide, he said. The change, Sullivan said, would allow political sign waving or student car washes but still bar panhandling from the sidewalk's edge, he said.

This satisfies the concerns of those concerned about freedom of expression, and for me, it satisfies my concerns about public safety,'' Sullivan said.

Downtown Assemblyman Allan Tesche said issues of free speech and enforcement remain.

The proposal would still restrict speech, Tesche said, but Sullivan has no specific information about whether the risk to drivers or panhandlers is real.

Mr. Sullivan has one anecdote. That's not enough justification to restrict speech,'' Tesche said. Tesche also said the law presents an enforcement problem of determining how far someone is standing from the curb.

Anchorage law already prohibits panhandling in the road or distracting motorists. But the law prohibits solicitations in the roadway only and is difficult to enforce, said city prosecutor Bruce Roberts. Sullivan's proposal broadens the ban to the section of sidewalk closest to the road.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that solicitations in most public areas are free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution, said John McKay, an Anchorage attorney who often works with free speech issues. But the court also has found that free speech can be restricted in public if there is a compelling public interest. In this case, drivers and the panhandlers are at risk, Sullivan argues.

The proposed ordinance is scheduled for a public hearing at Tuesday night's Assembly meeting.

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