Monday, May 28, 2012
Judge to make decision on Arcata panhandling law; ordinance remains a rift in city politics
Grant Scott-Goforth/The Times-Standard
A Humboldt County Superior Court judge will rule on the constitutionality of Arcata's panhandling ordinance, which limits the locations where people are allowed to panhandle and carries penalties for aggressive panhandling.
The ordinance was the subject of a lawsuit by Richard Salzman that went to trial last week.
Salzman's Attorney Peter Martin has until June 4 to submit a supplemental brief, at which point the judge will have 90 days to issue a decision on the case.
Martin said Salzman wants the law to be struck down as unconstitutional, any convictions under the law set aside and any fines levied against violators returned.
”I think the city of Arcata went too far, and I hope the judge will see it that way,” Martin said.
Salzman said he had no objection to the parts of the ordinance that ban aggressive panhandling such as touching someone, following them or blocking their way.
”I'm very sensitive to how inappropriate behavior is offensive,” Salzman said.
He said the ordinance goes too far with restricting the language allowed on signs.
”As a layperson, my feeling about it is they're trying to restrict what the signs say,” Salzman said, adding that political protest signs and advertisements don't face similar limitations.
”Somehow a sign that says 'hey buddy can you spare a dime?' offends sensibilities?”
Salzman said the aggressive panhandling that most agree is unacceptable should not be lumped in with holding signs.
”That's the most passive form of panhandling,” Salzman said.
Arcata City Councilman Mark Wheetley, who voted for the ordinance, said it was developed based on research and surveys of municipal panhandling ordinances throughout the country.
”It didn't come without a lot of careful review and consideration,” Wheetley said.
Wheetley still supports the ordinance but could not speak specifically about the litigation the city is engaged in with Salzman.
”It wasn't done in a vacuum,” Wheetley said. “I have received lots of positive feedback since it went into place.”
Vice Mayor Shane Brinton voted against the ordinance when it was enacted in 2010.
“I've continued to maintain the position that the ordinance may be unconstitutional,” Brinton said. “At the very least, it violates the spirit of the First Amendment.”
Brinton did think there was a legal precedent for the prohibition on aggressive panhandling.
Brinton said he couldn't comment on the merits of the Salzman case or its arguments, but added he would rather have seen the ordinance never enacted to save the city from having to defend it.
”I'm not really enthusiastic about any of this,” Brinton said.
Arcata City Manager Randy Mendosa said that as of Thursday, the city had spent $4,988 defending the ordinance, though that figure would rise as the trial hours had not yet been billed.
Mendosa said the ordinance has been successful for the city, cutting down on the “bad behavior factor.”
”Anecdotally, people seem fine with it,” Mendosa said. “I haven't heard any other complaints.”
Arcata Police Department Lt. Ryan Peterson said enforcement of the law mostly comes in the form of education. Police officers' first response is to inform people where they can and can't panhandle, and Peterson said most are compliant.
”The number of citations issued for panhandling is extremely low,” Peterson said. “What this gives the community is the ability to notify the police if there is an aggressive panhandler. It's certainly not designed to eradicate panhandling.”
Peterson said enforcement of the ordinance is complaint-driven, meaning officers only respond to public calls regarding panhandling. He said the majority -- more than 90 percent -- of calls are related to aggressive panhandling.
”Those are the kind of calls that really are frustrating,” Peterson said.
Salzman said that he will appeal if the judge rules against him. He says it's the first time he's been involved in a court proceeding but that it was his only recourse when the city council rejected his request to change the language of the ordinance.
”If they overstep their bounds of authority, I'm going to go to the judicial branch to rectify that incursion on our constitutional civil liberties,” Salzman said. “I feel I'm being a patriot.”
Grant Scott-Goforth can be reached at 441-0514 or firstname.lastname@example.org