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Rochester aims to ban aggressive panhandling; preps for lawsuits

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The city of Rochester is considering regulations to help curb aggressive panhandling after getting several complaints from residents who say they were intimidated by people asking for money on the sidewalk.

"These folks have a First Amendment right under our Constitution to ask for money, they don't have a First Amendment right to intimidate you or cause you to fear for concern out of your safety,” Rochester City Attorney Terry Adkins told ABC 6.

The City Council held a committee meeting Monday about possible regulations. Rochester is considering "Prohibitions against touching, verbal accosting, verbal aggression, as well as what I call the captive audience scenario," Adkins said, according to ABC 6.

The captive audience scenario would make it illegal for panhandlers to loiter within 15 feet of places like ATMs, outdoor cafes, public restrooms and public transportation, the Rochester Post Bulletin says. The city is also considering prohibiting panhandlers from standing on traffic medians and islands.

Supporters of the proposed ordinance say it's not aimed at panhandlers exactly, but is more about public safety.

City officials are considering how new regulations might be enforced. Rochester Police Chief Roger Peterson told ABC 6 that his department needs a clear definition on what consists of aggressive, intimidating panhandling because everyone's interpretation of it is different.

The council will have a public hearing before voting on the proposed ordinance during a July 21 meeting.

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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