June 23, 2017

Effort to curb panhandling in ABQ targets activity in street medians, sidewalks

An Albuquerque city councilor wants to take a crack at enforcing tougher restrictions on panhandling.

Councilor Trudy Jones this week introduced a measure that would ban people from walking and standing in street medians and engaging with drivers and passengers from the sidewalk except in cases of emergencies. Jones’ proposed ordinance would also bar drivers from stopping in a street or intersection “for the sole purpose of interacting with any pedestrian” except in the case of an emergency.

City law already bars people from soliciting on a street, highway, entrance or exit ramp for a ride or work. Loiterers are also currently banned from holding parking spaces for cars that are in the process of parking in exchange for money.

Jones, who was leaving town for vacation while this story went to press, could not be reached for comment. But her assistant Aziza Chavez said Jones could alter her proposal between now and when the city council comes back from a more-than monthlong recess.

“There won’t be any action on it until August,” Chavez said, noting that the bill still needs to go through the committee process before reaching the council for a full vote. “In the meantime, there’s still possible changes to the bill that may happen.”

Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the language in Jones’ current measure may be unconstitutional for being “overly broad.”

Since the measure is aimed at safety, Simonson said the city could only justify the new language “if they have strong evidence to show panhandlers are significantly contributing to traffic accidents.”

He also took issue with the measure for “criminalizing a motorist for engaging with someone who is standing at an intersection.”

“Any instances you can imagine where a motorist is talking to someone at a street corner or stopped at an intersection, that would be perfectly lawful under the [U.S.] Constitution,” Simonson said.

But Simonson also had praise for a related measure Jones dropped earlier this week to completely repeal the city’s existing “aggressive panhandling” ordinance.

That ordinance, which has been in place for more than a decade, bans people from panhandling between sunset to sunrise in Nob Hill and the downtown arts and culture district. It also bars panhandling in city buses, bus stops, public parking lots, private property, bank entrances and within 15 feet from public transportation facility entrances and ATMs. Panhandlers also can’t wash cars or hold parking spots in exchange for money under this ordinance.

When the aggressive panhandling limits were introduced in 2004, the ACLU stepped in and  “negotiated for an alternative, slimmed-down ordinance” that ultimately became law, Simonson said. Still, he argued that “there are parts of the existing law that are probably unconstitutional” and said he’s seen “numerous instances when officers are charging people with aggressive panhandling who weren’t doing anything.”

“I applaud Councilor Jones for thinking along those lines,” he said of her proposal to repeal the ordinance.

Constitutional issues were the reason why Councilor Don Harris, who introduced an unsuccessful measure two years ago to bar panhandling on busy roads and intersections, said he isn’t helping draft this new panhandling measure with Jones.

Harris told NM Political Report that he considers Jones’ current bill to be more narrowly focused on “public safety and pedestrian interactions” than his previous bill. Particularly, Harris said he sees Jones’ measure as designed to avoid “the concerns that might have been raised by my bill that might have been vulnerable to First Amendment stuff.”

“I just decided not to be a part of this one and let someone else take a crack at an ordinance that might be tailored for just the vehicle-pedestrian interactions,” Harris said. “I just backed out of that issue personally because of the constitutional issues.”

NM Political Report reached out to Mayor Richard Berry’s office for comment on Jones’ two measures but did not receive a response before press time.

In recent years, Berry has discouraged Albuquerque residents from giving money to panhandlers and promoted his “There’s a Better Way” program, which hires panhandlers for a dayshift paying $9 an hour to do city cleanup work.