Smith touts panhandling code changes

November 13, 2002|By MARLO BARNHART

HAGERSTOWN - All too familiar with aggressive panhandling from his years in Baltimore, Hagerstown City Police Chief Art Smith says he is glad local officials are taking steps to curb an escalating problem here with a recent change in the city code.

"We've gotten some complaints, mainly from the downtown merchants," Smith said. Business owners have told Smith that their customers say they are afraid to come downtown because of people approaching them asking for money.

The new rules went into effect Oct. 25, making aggressive panhandling a misdemeanor punishable with a fine of $100 and/or 30 days in jail. Smith is hoping this approach will cut down on, if not eliminate, the problem.


"There is a free speech issue here so we can't ban panhandling altogether, but we can step in when it becomes aggressive," Smith said. "Just asking for money is allowed."

Aggressive panhandling is defined as:

  • In the course of soliciting, touching another person without that person's consent.

  • Continuously soliciting from a person or following the person after the person has made a negative response to prior solicitations.

  • Intentionally blocking or interfering with the safe passage of a person or a vehicle by any means, including unreasonably causing a person to take evasive action to avoid physical contact.

  • Using obscene or abusive language either during the course of soliciting or immediately following a negative response to prior solicitation.

  • Acting with the intent of intimidating another person into giving money or another thing of value.

Smith said the problem tends to get worse in the fall when homeless people show up in the area to take advantage of the cold weather shelters that operate in Hagerstown.

"It's a shame that Hagerstown has been targeted because of programs which are in place through the goodness of people's hearts," Smith said.

Traditionally, cold weather shelters operate overnight and guests must leave early in the morning. Without a daytime shelter to go to, the guests often wander the streets until the night shelters reopen, Smith said.

In addition to downtown, Smith said the city also has a substantial problem at Edgewood Drive and Dual Highway and sometimes at the Centre at Hagerstown, where groups of solicitors often stand in the median strips and approach motorists when they stop for traffic signals.

Smith said the revised ordinance now makes it unlawful for any person to engage in soliciting within 10 feet of the entrance to a bank, financial institution or automatic teller machine; in any public transportation vehicle or at any bus stop; or from any operator or occupant of a motor vehicle that is in traffic on a public street, whether in exchange for a service or otherwise.

"In Baltimore, a similar ordinance was enacted because of the so-called 'squeegee boys' who would approach motorists, clean their windshields and then solicit money," Smith said.

The information from citizens' complaints will be forwarded to the police, who will position an officer at that trouble spot and watch for the situation to reoccur. When it does, the solicitor will be approached by the officer and possibly cited.

"That way the citizen who reports the problem won't have to go to court when the time comes," Smith said.

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