Thursday, 28 July 2022 15:29

Aggressive Panhandlers Beware

SARATOGA SPRINGS — In an effort to help curb “aggressive” panhandling in Saratoga Springs, the City Council this week is expected to stage a public dialogue session regarding a proposed measure to prohibit “aggressive solicitation.” 

The purpose of the measure is to protect people from threatening, intimidating or harassing behavior by persons soliciting money or other valuables in public places, according to a draft copy of the proposed ordinance. A public hearing is anticipated to take place in advance of the 7 p.m. start of the council’s Tuesday, Aug. 2 meeting at City Hall. A vote on the measure could also potentially take place later that same night, although the council has yet to release its agenda. 

“The purpose of the ordinance is not punitive, to not take away from the poor, but rather intended to serve a two -fold purpose,” said city Public Safety Commissioner Jim Montagnino. 

The first is to provide mechanisms for those with mental health issues to access services needed, Montagnino explained. This would be achieved by issuing court appearance tickets for “homeless court” sessions – held every other Tuesday. Those sessions are attended by service providers who can offer guidance of available services to those appearing in court. 

“The secondary purpose (addresses) an aggressive minority of panhandlers in the city who don’t take ‘no’ for an answer and become an annoyance to people…this ordinance will limit the means by which an individual can ask for money,” Montagnino said. 

The draft is based on a similar model in effect in Rochester, N.Y. for nearly 20 years. “It is an ordinance that has withstood constitutional challenges,” Montagnino said. 

Melanie Trimble, regional director for the NYCLU Capital Region office, says the New York Civil Liberties Union strongly opposes the anti-panhandling ordinance proposed by the Saratoga Springs’ City Council. 

“Begging and use of public sidewalks for non-criminal activities are First Amendment rights protected by the United States and New York Constitutions,” Trimble said in response to a Saratoga TODAY inquiry seeking comment from the organization regarding the city’s proposal.  “This ordinance is antithetical to the values of generosity and compassion that are a notable part of New York life. While no one condones intimidation, the mean-spirited nature of this ordinance that criminalizes poverty can be lost on no one.”

The Rochester law prohibiting aggressive panhandling went into effect in July 2004 with fines ranging from $25 to $250. Repeat offenders potentially face up to 15 days in jail, if convicted twice withing 12 months. 

“It’s a city code, but they don’t give tickets. They choose not to,” explained Bettie McBride, responding this week to an inquiry requesting information about the effectiveness of the law. McBride works as a clerk in the office of the Rochester chief of police. “What we do is we try to help out; offer resources to get shelter, get clothing and food.” 

In 2020, the town of Colonie crafted a resolution to curb aggressive panhandling similarly based on the Rochester ordinance. Police reported they had answered 95 calls for aggressive panhandling in 2019, and 110 complaints through the first part of 2020. 

During public hearings regarding the Colonie proposal, residents raised concerns that such a Local Law could open the town up to a lawsuit, that it discriminated against the poor, addressed just one symptom of broader issues related to poverty, drug addiction and mental illness, and violated a person’s freedom of speech, according to a report by Jim Franco of the Spotlight News. The resolution was adjourned without vote during the board’s meeting in late August 2020 and seems to have since fallen off the town’s radar. Messages requesting information about the current status of the resolution were left with two of the board’s past and present members, but no response was immediately received. 

With the Saratoga Springs measure, both the city Police Department and the Department of Code Administration would have the authority to enforce and to issue appearance tickets for violations of the provision. 

The described intent of the measure is to protect people from threatening, intimidating or harassing behavior in connection with solicitation in public places, provide for the free flow of pedestrian and vehicle traffic, and to promote tourism and business and preserve the quality of urban life. “Aggressive acts can cause persons to avoid public places and lead to declining patronage of commercial establishments and tourism,” reads the draft. 

Solicitation is prohibited outright in proximity to bank entrances or ATMs, as is making physical contact with a person in the course of the solicitation. Behavior that causes intimidation or fear by following someone in an act of solicitation, or continued solicitation in close proximity after a person has provided a negative verbal or non-verbal response is also not allowed.  Additionally, no person shall solicit in an “aggressive manner” in a public place, or when it is directed at an occupant of a vehicle while standing on a sidewalk.

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