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Rochester City Council votes for aggressive panhandling ban

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The Rochester City Council passed the first vote Monday night on an ordinance that some say would curb aggressive panhandling.

The ordinance doesn't ban panhandling altogether, but does limit where people can ask for money. The ordinance, which was drafted by City Attorney Terry Adkins, plans to ban panhandlers from intimidating people by touching, verbal accosting and verbal aggression. The ordinance would also make it illegal for panhandlers to loiter within 15 feet of places like ATMs, outdoor cafes, public restrooms and public transportation – what Adkins calls the "captive audience scenario."

The ordinance wouldn't restrict passive panhandling, the Rochester Post Bulletin notes, which includes things like putting up a sign, or playing a guitar for money, unless it occurs within the "captive audience" zones.

After significant debate over the issue, the City Council passed the ordinance by a 5-2 margin.

Council member Michael Wojcik voted against the ordinance. He says he doesn't approve of it because, according to the ordinance the way it's written, if a panhandler asks a person sitting at a cafe for a dollar, gets turned down and moves on, it's still considered breaking the law.

"This goes beyond addressing any problem," Wojcik said, the Post Bulletin reports. "This is just being abusive to people ... I'm really disappointed that we would go forward with this."

Before the ordinance becomes final, the City Council will revisit it again, KTTC reports. The new ordinances are expected to go into effect sometime in September, KIMT says.

The city council also passed a separate ordinance, which bans anyone from being in a median unless they're in the process of crossing the street or working to do maintenance in the median, KTTC reports..

Potential lawsuits

City council members who support regulations to ban aggressive panhandling are basing the ordinance on those passed in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2013 because that measure has been through legal challenges – and won.

Worcester, a city 45 miles west of Boston, has two ordinances very similar to those proposed in Rochester – one bans aggressive panhandling and creates a 20-foot buffer zone around ATMs, public transportation, etc. The other prohibits anyone from occupying traffic islands and medians for any purpose besides crossing the street,Worcester Magazine says.

The city went with a content-neutral approach to curb panhandling, which is one reason the ordinances have held up in court. Instead of just banning those asking for money, it limits all activities from politicians campaigning to kids selling cookies, the Rochester Post Bulletin notes.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the city of Worcester, calling the panhandling law unconstitutional because it goes against First Amendment rights, but courts have upheld the ordinance so far. An appeals court decided in June to deny a preliminary injunction while the lawsuit is being pursued, so the city can continue to enforce the ordinance, according to MassLive.

A little over a week later, the Supreme Court ruled that buffer zones around reproductive health clinics are unconstitutional, which could affect Worcester’s panhandling ordinance that creates buffer zones in some public spaces, Worcester Magazine notes.

Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney at ACLU Massachusetts, is working on the case against Worcester’s ordinances and says the panhandling buffer zone is more of an interference of freedom of speech than the reproductive clinic law, the magazine says.

Wunsch also says that any city that is considering similar panhandling ordinances “is really going to have to consider them much harder,” the Rochester Post Bulletin reports.

However, the city of Rochester says it is prepared for pending lawsuits if it passes the panhandling ordinance.

“I would not be surprised if we were challenged,” Adkins told the Rochester Post Bulletin. “But I like our chances in court.”

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