The Panhandling Problem: When public safety clashes with the 1st Amendment

Published: Oct. 22, 2019 at 3:24 PM EDT
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If you've driven through Gainesville in the past three years, you've seen the problem multiply - panhandlers, dangerously close to cars, sitting in intersections, and walking through traffic.

The domino effect started with Supreme Court ruling Reed v. Town of Gilbert in 2015. A city's sign-restriction ordinance went up against First Amendment, and the First Amendment won.

Cities across the country started having their panhandling ordinances struck down.

In North Central Florida, Gainesville Police and Alachua County Sheriff’s Deputies were told they can no longer enforce their respective rules soon after.

The county’s solution was not to regulate people or what they are saying, but instead to regulate the place.

“You can solicit or panhandle from the sidewalk. You can't do it in the median,” said ASO's Lt. of Patrol Operations Jayson Levy.

Alachua County's “Public Safety Ordinance" went into effect in Feb. 2018.

Panhandling is perfectly legal in the unincorporated areas of the county, but standing in medians or stepping into traffic, no matter what you're doing it for, is not.

So far, deputies have only given one citation in year and a half they have been enforcing it.

"It’s like writing somebody a ticket that has a suspended license,” Levy said. “How am I going to pay my ticket for a suspended license if I can't pay for my license in the first place?"

County leaders say the problem areas are all within city limits. Gainesville city leaders say they’re working on a solution, too.

They also say it won’t be a quick fix.

“Very preliminary, in discussion stages,” said Gainesville’s City Communication’s Director Shelby Taylor. “(We’re) examining what has worked in other communities."

They say they have been working on an answer following a crash that killed a panhandler in April of 2019.

Commissioner Harvey Ward is one of the people working to draw up a new city ordinance. He said mimicking the county’s approach isn’t an option.

“We need a better way of thinking about this,” Ward said. "A different way of thinking about this. The county has an ordinance, but to my understanding is that it isn't necessarily legally defendable."

The ACLU and Southern Legal Council sent a letter to county officials just over a year ago, saying the same thing, but Alachua County has not backed down.

“Our attorney's office did a great deal of research, looked at ordinances from other communities and was convinced this one would stand the constitutional test,” said Alachua County’s Communication’s Director Mark Sexton.

SLC members now say the way the county has enforced the ordinance has not been problematic, and they are not pursuing a lawsuit

Still, Gainesville leaders aren't convinced, and are looking for their own unique solution.

“As a part of that process, public works has been very careful to go out and measure intersections and think, maybe this median is one that's unsafe, but maybe other medians are safer for that sort of thing,” Ward said.

But as to what will be done, or when, there's no clear answer yet.

“I'd like to think we're maybe getting close, but I can't give you a date on when that might come around,” Ward said.

Stay with TV20 as we continue to follow this story in Gainesville, Alachua County, and North Central Florida.

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