Commissioners discuss panhandling in McDowell

At their most recent meeting, the McDowell County Commissioners discussed what they could do about panhandling, an issue that many communities in North Carolina and across the country has grappled with.

The commissioners said they have heard complaints from residents about people panhandling at Exit 81 near where the Pilot Travel Center is located on Sugar Hill Road, which is outside the Marion city limits.

County Manager Ashley Wooten contacted County Attorney Fred Coats and asked what could legally be done regarding a panhandling ordinance for McDowell. Coats informed Wooten and the commissioners he feels that an ordinance should only be considered if panhandling becomes a serious public safety issue. He provided the board with a sample ordinance to consider.

However, county officials found there’s a lot of federal case law that makes it challenging for local governments to restrict panhandling.

The ACLU has filed lawsuits in the past, claiming that ordinances and laws against panhandling violate the First Amendment. According to a news release, a federal judge in Louisiana declared the city of Slidell’s panhandling ordinance unconstitutional in 2017, ruling that the law violated the First Amendment rights of people asking for money anywhere within the Slidell city limits. Under the ordinance, panhandlers would have been required to register with police and acquire a permit to engage in a constitutionally protected activity.

“This decision affirms that even unpopular speech is protected under the Constitution,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “The City of Slidell may not ban messages it doesn’t like or punish people for asking for help. Instead it has an obligation to protect the rights of all people.”

North Carolina has a statute on the books regarding this issue and county officials decided Monday the best option would be to have local law enforcement enforce the state law, according to Wooten.

Under North Carolina General Statute 20-175, no person shall stand or loiter in the main traveled portion, including the shoulders and median, of any state highway or street, except for sidewalks, or stop any motor vehicle “for the purpose of soliciting employment, business or contributions from the driver or occupant of any motor vehicle that impedes the normal movement of traffic on the public highways or streets…”

The state statute also allows local governments, like cities and counties, to enact ordinances that place further restrictions on panhandling along roads and streets.

“In the event the solicitation event or the solicitors shall create a nuisance, delay traffic, create threatening or hostile situations, any law enforcement officer with proper jurisdiction may order the solicitations to cease,” reads the statute. “Any individual failing to follow a law enforcement officer’s lawful order to cease solicitation shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.”

Just last year, both Greensboro and Fayetteville adopted new rules regulating panhandling. The city of Greensboro’s ordinance, passed by a City Council 5-4 vote, prohibits anyone from blocking or impeding sidewalk access and it bans solicitation in city parking garages and surface parking lots. It also prohibits “harassing conduct” in public places. Fayetteville’s ordinance seeks to decrease panhandling by prohibiting people in vehicles from giving or receiving items from pedestrians, according to online sources.

The city of Marion has had an ordinance on its books for many years. It prohibits begging, panhandling or conducting performances for donations (busking) on public streets, alleys, rights-of-way or sidewalks in the city of Marion or on property owned or leased by the city. This ordinance was part of the 1982 recodification of Marion’s ordinances, which means it was adopted prior to 1982. It was amended in 2009 to allow for busking at city-sponsored or approved events, with the permission of the event organizer, according to City Manager Bob Boyette.

So far, Marion’s panhandling ordinance has not been challenged in court.

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