Our view: Panhandling ordinance a prudent step


September 22, 2013 

On the day the Boise City Council voted 3-1 in favor of a controversial ordinance to thwart aggressive solicitation in the city, something in that very category was happening in parking lots in the vicinity of 16th and State.

There were three different occasions that day when someone followed women to their cars and along the way hit them up for money, according to Lynn Hightower, communications director for the Boise Police Department. Each incident was reported to police, and on one occasion officers asked some people to move on.

But because this was on private property, where the threshold for arresting someone for harassment or intimidation includes having to prove a variety of circumstances, including a pattern, Boise police were without the best legal tools to deal with it adequately, Hightower said.

These 16th and State episodes Tuesday were not an aberration on the same day panhandling ordinance protesters gathered outside Boise City Hall and then packed the chambers of the City Council for the 6 p.m. vote. Hightower said they happen daily. Such incidents illustrate why the city of Boise needed to pass a public solicitation ordinance that defines “aggressive” methods and spells out specific locations and circumstances where solicitation will be forbidden.

We think the city was justified and prudent to draft and pass a solicitation ordinance Tuesday, but it will be awhile before we are convinced the new Public Solicitation Ordinance solves the problem of what happened Tuesday at 16th and State. We asked Hightower just what problems this ordinance does solve.

“It will allow everyone to exercise rights and freedoms without impinging on or being impinged upon. It’s a balance,” she said. “Folks do have a right to panhandle. But nobody has the right to intimidate.”

The ordinance goes into effect Jan. 2, and there is a provision to revisit it a year later. Its success could depend heavily on the success of Boise police education efforts in the community, which Hightower said will start now and will continue after Jan. 2. There are Boise police officers who have lots of contact with Downtown constituents, including business owners and the homeless. Hightower believes this education effort will be similar to implementation of the smoking ordinance and the no-alcohol-on-the-river ordinance.

“What officers found was successful (in those cases) is to reach out to folks engaged in the activity and to let them know what is and isn’t going to be allowed,” she said.

The Boise ordinance, which borrowed sentiment from others in Chicago and Seattle, seems to allow wiggle room for people soliciting money for charity, for street performers, for bell ringers at Christmas, and for people soliciting signatures for petitions — though even these efforts aren’t allowed to be aggressive. The solicitation restrictions are aimed at the methods, not the act.

We are curious, though, why the new ordinance decriminalizes the first offense of aggressive solicitation from a misdemeanor to an infraction. After Jan. 2, offenders are issued an infraction for the first offense, a $61 fine.

A second offense could lead to misdemeanor arrest. Rather than cast people right into the criminal justice system, the city and police want to try the education route, though they always have the option to arrest someone who gets disorderly or unlawful during that process.

We are pleased the city and police have a new and necessary tool to combat aggressiveness and intimidation on our streets related to solicitation.

We wish it was coming sooner, and we hope they won’t be afraid to use the ordinance when it does. The people at 16th and State, and all around the city, deserve to feel safe.

“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.

Here’s how Boise’s new Public Solicitation Ordinance defines some of its restrictions

“Aggressive” acts: Intentionally making any nonconsensual physical contact with another person in the course of a solicitation ... an act causing a reasonable person to be intimidated to answer affirmatively to the solicitation for fear of imminent bodily harm to oneself or another, or damage to or loss of property; intentionally obstructing safe or free passage; making any threatening statement or gesture before or during the solicitation or after a refusal.

Open public area: Any out-of-doors area to which the public ... has access and a right to stay upon for business, entertainment, or other lawful purposes.

Solicit: Request, ask or beg, whether by words, bodily gestures, signs or other means . . .

Prohibited locations and targets of solicitation: Public transportation vehicles (bus, trolley, tram, train), business customers waiting in line; within 20 feet of an ATM, financial institution, sidewalk cafe, mobile or street vendor, public toilet, bus stop, taxi stand or valet stand; from any roadway or parkway from an occupant of a motor vehicle; parking garages; pedestrians crossing roadways.

Copies of the entire ordnance can be obtained at Boise City Hall. Or Google “Boise Public Solicitation Ordinance Final” and you should be able to download a PDF.

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