Alexandria nears repeal of panhandling restrictions due to First Amendment concerns

The City of Alexandria, Virginia, is taking steps to repeal its restrictions on specific panhandling behaviors in public places.

The City Council took its first vote, Tuesday, to eliminate its specified prohibitions on panhandling, which include panhandling that causes fear of injury or criminal action in a public place, panhandling with touching without consent, panhandling with intimidation and panhandling within 15 feet of ATMs.

City Attorney Joanna Anderson told councilmembers, that “evolving Constitutional law has established that panhandling constitutes protected expression under the First Amendment.”

However, Anderson said most of the undesirable panhandling behaviors in the city’s ordinance “have large areas of overlap” with other portions of city code.

“Repealing the City’s panhandling prohibition will ensure that the City is not engaging in content-based discrimination of speech against panhandlers,” Anderson wrote in a memo to the mayor and council. “Such a repeal would nevertheless leave in place guardrails that are generally applicable to all speakers that are intended to provide safety, peace, and good order.”

Anderson said while the prohibitions against panhandling within 15 feet of an ATM doesn’t have another ordinance to cover it, any aggressive panhandling near the money machine would be prohibited.

Council members sought to reassure residents that changing the language would not put their safety at risk.

“I don’t want anybody to feel their personal safety will be reduced,” said Council member Sarah Bagley. “You will not be able to threaten someone or make them feel unsafe.”

Anderson said police can still be summoned to report panhandling on private property and to provide trespassing assistance.

Speaking before the vote, Mayor Justin Wilson, said the city has been sued in the past over non-Constitutional restrictions: “Even the presence of unconstitutional laws can get you in trouble, even if it’s not being enforced.”

The Council’s vote on first reading passed unanimously. The repeal is scheduled for second reading, public hearing and final passage on Saturday, Oct. 14.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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