Panhandling causes headaches across Manatee County. ‘Strategic enforcement’ is coming

The First Amendment is Manatee County’s biggest obstacle when it comes to cracking down on panhandlers at busy intersections. New enforcement tactics could be the answer.

Recent reports of Bradenton beggars becoming aggressive when asking for money and turning down job offers brought national attention to the issue, but the county ordinance may already be as strict as possible, according to the County Attorney’s Office.

“Yes, they have rights to free speech, but they do not have rights to aggressively approach residents,” Commissioner Betsy Benac said.

But being able to defend any panhandler-targeted ordinance in court is County Attorney Mitchell Palmer’s top priority, he said. His staff noted that a July 2018 tweak to the ordinance is probably the best they could do.

“I feel good about our ordinance being defensible and when it was proposed, that’s what we considered,” said Assistant County Attorney Kate Zamboni.

At that time, Palmer suggested the county tweak its ordinance to disallow panhandling on roadway medians, where beggars may obstruct the right of the way. Anything more stringent than that isn’t likely to be upheld in court.

“My office can draft legislation all day, every day, but it’s got to be defensible in court, and given what’s going on, that’s going to be a tall order and I want you to know that off the bat,” Palmer told the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday morning.

A large part of working to ensure the decision won’t be struck down in court would be a study analyzing the secondary effects caused by the change. Commissioners voted to hold off on a study until after they discuss a joint effort to tackle the issue with other local municipalities at a planned Council of Governments meeting on July 30.

Local governments need to work hand in hand, Commissioner Stephen Jonsson suggested, because panhandlers are often cognizant of jurisdictional borders and hop to the other side of the street, where the responding law enforcement can’t cite them.

“They know the game better than we do,” Jonsson said.

‘It’s getting worse’

The discussion was kicked off at Tuesday’s meeting by Ryan Bray, who confronted a man who claimed to be homeless but declined to accept a paying job. His effort went viral, sparking discussion among Bradenton officials, too.

“This is a problem we’re having in this community and it’s getting worse, and we’re going to have to take action,” Bray told the board during public comment.

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Commissioner Misty Servia agreed, citing the harm it does to the area’s reputation.

“It is our responsibility up here to do a couple of things — to protect the health, safety and welfare is primarily our responsibility,” she said.

“We owe it to tourists, business owners and other groups affected by panhandling,” Servia added. “We spend a lot of money trying to get people to come to beautiful Manatee County. Can you imagine what some of them think when they see beggars at every intersection?”

Another resident, Jill Rocklein, said the begging is “creating rippling effects in our community,” citing the fear she now has pumping gas or bringing groceries back to her car.

“Why would he turn down a $15 per hour job, we ask? He must be making more money, tax free, hustling and threatening citizens. Please consider enforcing safer panhandling locations, panhandling work permits, accountability and consequences,” Rocklein told the board.

How can Manatee County enforce panhandling law?

The law is already on the books, but new ideas around enforcing those regulations could be a game changer, the board agreed.

“My recommendation would be to try to enforce what we have a little bit more strictly through the help of law enforcement while we study and see if there’s something more restrictive needed,” Zamboni said.

As it stands, officers can only write citations if they witness a panhandler enter the roadway to accept a donation. With beggars working to exploit those loopholes, however, the county and its partners will need to get creative, Commissioner Reggie Bellamy said, suggesting a more “strategic approach.”

“It makes no sense for a sheriff’s office vehicle to pull up because they’re going to see it coming, but our undercover vehicles are doing other things,” he said. “We need more strategic enforcement on this.”

The county could decide to allocate funding for panhandling patrols, but it comes down to finding room within the budget, Benac pointed out.

“We’re not alone in this situation, but it is multi-faceted,” said Benac. “It’s a question of whether or not we’re going to fund enforcement.”

Another solution could be to create a permit process for people looking to accept donations on the road, Servia said. A broad ordinance blocking anyone, such as sign spinners and car wash fundraisers, would be too restrictive, she argued.

“The difference between marketers and panhandling is walking from the sidewalk to approach the car and get the money,” said Servia.

A potential permit process could prevent beggars from lining the streets, while still allowing more docile fundraisers to accept donations from drivers, though it remains to be seen whether the process would infringe upon the First Amendment as well.

Echoing the advice of local homeless outreach organizations, board members also urged the public to stop handing beggars money.

Commissioners unanimously passed a motion ordering the County Attorney’s Office to study what other counties have done to curb panhandling in Florida and bring back possible solutions within 60 days.

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