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St. Petersburg to crack down on panhandlers

The police chief says charities and newspaper hawkers, too, must heed rules along streets.

By LEONORA LaPETER ANTON
Published June 15, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Police Chief Chuck Harmon told City Council members Thursday he will begin consistently enforcing a law that bars panhandling in city streets.

He acknowledged that his officers also would crack down on anyone who steps into the roadway to get money - including newspaper hawkers and charitable organizations.

In addition, council members will consider at a future meeting the possible creation of a downtown zone in which all panhandling would be illegal. There is also talk of taking Orlando's approach of establishing panhandling zones, limited areas in which the practice would be legal.

"We've got to do something about it," said City Council member Jeff Danner. "It's a big problem, and business owners want some relief."

Just about every council member agreed that something needs to be done about panhandling, but there was much disagreement on how far the city should go.

Mayor Rick Baker's administration suggested the council pass a law preventing anyone from soliciting funds from a passing motorist in the street every day but Sunday, for public safety reasons. This happens to be the day that independent contractors sell the St. Petersburg Times from city medians and sidewalks.

But City Attorney John Wolfe said the day was chosen because there are fewer cars on the road, making it less of a public safety risk.

"To me that doesn't make a whole lot of sense," said council member Earnest Williams, an insurance company owner. "It's all right to do it on Sunday, but no other day? To me, that's hokey."

The council decided not to consider the idea.

Harmon, the police chief, noted that an existing state law bans anyone from standing in the road to solicit a ride, employment or business from a driver. (Standing on medians or sidewalks is not prohibited.) A police officer issued a traffic citation based on that law to a homeless man for panhandling in the roadway recently.

It was only after a television news reporter asked Harmon if the same law would affect Times hawkers that the chief said the law must apply to anyone who conducts business in the roadway.

Alison Steele, an attorney for the Times, said the independent distributors who sell the newspaper on street corners and medians are well aware of the law and try to stay off the street.

"From the Times perspective, I don't anticipate any significant impact on Sunday newspaper sales because distributors have been complying with state law to my knowledge and not walking on the street to sell papers," Steele said. "I'm sure there are isolated exceptions because you can't watch everyone, but this is notice that they need to strictly comply."

The law would appear to affect charitable organizations seeking funds, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association's boot drive with firefighters. A drive this past spring at three St. Petersburg intersections produced $27,000.

But Sherry Yagovane, regional coordinator for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, said a new state law goes into effect July 1 that allows the firefighters to collect money in the roadway. Gov. Charlie Crist signed the bill May 22.

"We've battled ordinances across the state, quite honestly," Yagovane said. "You know it has a huge impact on our fundraising. The firefighters are our No. 1 sponsor. It would have a major impact on our fundraising dollars if the firefighters were not allowed to go out on the street."

The Rev. Bruce Wright, an advocate for the homeless, said any law restricting panhandling violates free speech. He said he just might find a way to challenge it - by simply violating it himself. "They're setting themselves up for a massive civil liberties challenge, " he said.