City Council rethinks panhandling regulations

City Council rethinks panhandling regulations
City Hall (Photo/M Enriquez for Visit Alexandria)

By Wafir Salih | 

Alexandria City Council is reevaluating its panhandling regulations due to recent developments in First Amendment case law. While existing regulations do not outright ban direct solicitations of cash, they do distinguish between panhandlers and other entities, such as charities, that seek funds. 

During a legislative meeting Tuesday night, City Attorney Joanna Anderson suggested this distinction may be unconstitutional. 

“You can’t regulate certain types of speakers differently than other people who are in the right-of-way,” Anderson said. “That’s where it causes First Amendment concerns.” 

In a memo sent to Council, Anderson explained many of the laws contained in the City’s panhandling regulation are already covered by other sections of the City Code. 

“The majority of the provisions in the City’s panhandling ordinance have large areas of overlap with prohibitions in other Code sections that are generally applicable,” Anderson wrote in the memo. 

Alexandria Police Department Lt. Jason North spoke about his nearly two decades in law enforcement to showcase how rare enforcing this regulation has been. 

“I’ve been fortunate to do this job for 19 years. I’ve never [written] a panhandling citation,” North said. 

Anderson provided a chart comparing the overlap between the panhandling regulations and city code. The chart showed the code lacks a law that prohibits panhandling within 15 feet of an ATM, a provision present in the original regulation. 

Councilor John Taylor Chapman sought clarity on the rules concerning panhandling near ATMs. 

“I guess the one that I’m still figuring out is the policy about individuals near an ATM. How do you kind of rectify that?” Chapman said. 

Assistant City Attorney Lindsay Dubin provided follow up. 

“That is the one [law] that is not covered by other parts of the statute,” Dubin said. “[ATM solicitations] are not prohibited anywhere in the Alexandria code so that is the one area where there is no overlap. So yes, now panhandlers would be able to solicit within 15 feet of an ATM, which I realize would be a difference, but at the same time we’re just following [what] the constitution is requiring.” 

Building on Dubin’s remarks, Anderson emphasized laws should not specifically target panhandlers. 

“If we had an issue with aggressive behavior around ATMs then we’d need to address it in a holistic way, not just with panhandlers,” Anderson said. 

Councilor Alyia Gaskins responded to feedback from the public regarding the possible repeal of this regulation. 

“Some of the emails and communications that we received related to these proposed changes were just in some cases quite troubling,” Gaskins said. “It was really disturbing the way people were kind of almost criminalizing or stereotyping folks literally for just trying to survive — or making assumptions that because they do one behavior, they’re all of a sudden going to do other behaviors.” 

Gaskins urged against stereotypes, calling for more empathy from the community. 

“While this was particularly related to the legal and constitutional elements, I think we also have to be very clear and careful about the way we judge, assume or stereotype our neighbors,” Gaskins said. 

Anderson stressed that removal of these regulations would not affect private businesses. 

“The laws that we are changing here are in [regards] to the public right of way,” Anderson said. “Private organizations have more ability to regulate the people on their property.” 

Mayor Justin Wilson wrapped up discussion of the topic by detailing the potential consequences of having outdated and unconstitutional laws on the books. 

“The city attorney noted that we have been sued for situations where we have enforced ordinances that were unconstitutional,” Wilson said. “I would also note we’ve been sued for ordinances that we have not enforced. They’re simply on the books and we have paid settlements as a result of that litigation. Just the presence of an unconstitutional law can also get you in trouble even if you don’t even enforce it, so it’s important to keep these things cleaned up.” 

Council voted 6-1, with Chapman as the dissenting vote, to discuss the issue during Saturday’s public hearing. The regulations could be repealed as early as this weekend.