Council removes panhandling restrictions

Council removes panhandling restrictions
Panhandling often occurs at or near ATM machines, which makes customers vulnerable at these locations. (File photo)

By Caitlyn Meisner | 

Restrictions on panhandling in Alexandria were unanimously lifted Saturday during the City Council public hearing. 

This vote comes after a heated discussion at the council’s October 11 legislative meeting where Councilors debated a 1994 ordinance on panhandling regulations. The 1994 city ordinance banned panhandling within 15 feet of ATMs and aggressive panhandling, which includes soliciting money using methods that cause fear of injury. 

This topic was brought to the forefront of City Council due to recent developments in First Amendment case law, according to Mayor Justin Wilson. In 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that a similar Charlottesville law violated free speech rights of homeless panhandlers. 

In accordance with these developments, these restrictions are no longer a part of city code due to Saturday’s 7-0 vote. 

City Attorney Joanna Anderson said in the Saturday public hearing that some questions remained after the legislative meeting on panhandling restrictions in neighboring cities and towns, including Arlington and Fairfax. 

“We have confirmed that [those jurisdictions] don’t have – and haven’t had – panhandling ordinances,” Anderson said. 

Another question raised was the frequency of citing panhandling regulations. In the October 11 legislative meeting, Jason North, Alexandria Police Department lieutenant, said he has never written a citation of this nature. 

Anderson backed up his statement and said this code has been used 50 times during the last 10 years, but zero times since 2020. 

“The majority of the reasons why it was used … can be enforced in different sections of the code,” Anderson said. “There were two in the last 10 years that were cited for being within 15 feet of an ATM machine, but in those instances there were probably other actions that created the reason for someone to call the police.” 

Councilor John Taylor Chapman said he initially was unsure of removing the code, but realized this issue goes beyond just panhandling. 

“If it’s just that case in Charlottesville, I would be against what we’re doing here,” Chapman said. “If you look at the totality of the different cases – particularly around free speech versus panhandling – I think you come to a different conclusion about the work that we’re doing here.” 

Before the council officially voted on the matter, Chapman requested there be further discussion “offline” about ATMs because he believes those are protected spaces. 

“That’s when you’re most vulnerable, if you’re getting cash out,” Chapman said. 

Wilson also spoke before the vote and said it’s unusual Council is voting to reverse a fairly new ordinance in comparison to some that are hundreds of years old. 

After resolving the panhandling issue, Council then moved on to other matters, including two special use permits and a closed session.