Boise will rewrite panhandling ordinance

The new version, prompted by a federal court ruling, will make only aggressive requests for money illegal.

sberg@idahostatesman.comJanuary 11, 2014 


    The Boise City Council is scheduled to consider repealing part of its restrictions on panhandling. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the third-floor council chambers of City Hall, 150 N. Capitol Blvd.

Faced with an expensive and potentially unsuccessful legal battle, it made sense for the city of Boise to delete the parts of its panhandling law that a federal judge blocked, Councilman David Eberle said Friday.

The council could pass the new ordinance at its meeting Tuesday night.

The city planned to review the law and its enforcement after a year anyway, Eberle pointed out. The city can still watch to see if panhandling “is really as big an issue as we understood it to be,” he said.

Boise will rely on residents’ and visitors’ experiences to tell them if there really is a problem with panhandlers hassling people for money.

“We might as well still try to collect (information) without going to the mat on a principle when, in fact, we’re trying to solve a problem,” he said.

The city passed a law in September that made it illegal to ask for money from people waiting in line, crossing a road, near banks and ATMs, in roadways and public transportation vehicles.

The same law made aggressive panhandling illegal, no matter where it takes place. Aggressive, for the purposes of the law, means intimidating, threatening, making unwanted physical contact, blocking a person’s way or continuing to ask for money close to a person who has said no.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and two homeless Boise men sued the city in November to block the whole ordinance. They said it was unconstitutional because it made certain types of speech illegal. The plaintiffs didn’t challenge the portion of the law dealing with aggressive requests.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge issued a preliminary injunction blocking most of the rest of the law, saying it would probably be found to infringe on people’s free speech rights.

Being asked for money may make people uncomfortable, Lodge wrote, but “in public places, all citizens must tolerate speech they don’t agree with, find to be a nuisance, insulting or outrageous.”

Complaints by Downtown businesspeople spurred the city to write and pass the ordinance. Efforts Friday to contact a representative of the Downtown Boise Association, an alliance of Downtown businesses, were unsuccessful.

Councilwoman Lauren McLean was the only member of the Boise council who voted against the ordinance.

“If this ordinance was just about aggressive panhandling, I could vote for it,” McLean wrote in a statement before the Council vote in September. “When we have rights bumping up against each other, we need to balance them. It’s important to me when I vote on issues requiring this balance that I make sure that the rights of the less fortunate aren’t sacrificed for the rights of others.”

ACLU-Idaho legal director Ritchie Eppink said the city’s decision to rewrite the law is welcome, but that doesn’t absolve the City Council of passing it in the first place.

“It’s the City Council and the mayor that took the oath to uphold the Constitution, and you would think that they would take that responsibility seriously enough to not proceed ahead on an ordinance like this one,” Eppink said. “If it’s the city’s plan to keep testing the limits of the Constitution, they’re going to do so at great expense to everybody.”

Assuming the new, less restrictive law passes as scheduled Tuesday, Eppink said he expects the plaintiffs to drop their lawsuit against the city.

He also expects the city to pay the plaintiffs’ legal costs.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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