Bill Would Fine 'Aggressive' Panhandlers

Michigan legislator: 'It intimidates some people'

State lawmakers are considering legislation that would penalize panhandlers who apply too much pressure when asking for a handout. Under House Bill 5103, panhandlers who use overbearing or intimidating tactics when soliciting for money could face a $100 civil fine.

Rep. Mike McCready, R-Birmingham, the sponsor of House Bill 5103, was asked how so many panhandlers manage to operate in parking lots and near storefronts where “no soliciting” signs are clearly posted?

“That’s a good question; and actually, it sort of points toward the need for increasing public information concerning this issue,” McCready said. "Raising awareness of this problem was one of the primary purposes for introducing this legislation. In Birmingham, we’re having an almost epidemic problem with panhandlers. A lot of these people are addicted to drugs like heroin or cocaine. They do need help, but giving them money to feed their habit isn’t helping them. It would help them more to give them some food, like maybe a granola bar.”

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“To stand in a public place and panhandle is one thing,” McCready continued. “Michigan had a law against panhandling; then a couple of years ago, the courts struck it down. But when the panhandlers do things like go right to the car of a person who is either attempting to get in or get out; follow persons back to their cars; bang on their car windows; or take other aggressive action, it intimidates some people. When people feel harassed or intimidated by a panhandler, they should call the police immediately. But most people don’t. They probably think about it later when they get home, but by that time, it’s too late.”

On Aug. 14, 2013, a federal appeals court ruled that Michigan’s 84-year-old law against asking for money in a public place violated the First Amendment right of free speech. Now, House Bill 5103 seeks to make a distinction between just panhandling and aggressive panhandling.

The legislation would create the Aggressive Solicitation Prohibition Act. It specifies what a panhandler would be prohibited from doing when soliciting money from another person in a public place. Those who violate the law could be subject to the $100 fine. The list of prohibited activities consists of the following (as listed in the bill or described by the House Fiscal Agency):

- Approaching or following a person in a manner intended or likely to cause a reasonable person to fear imminent apprehension of bodily harm.

- Approaching or following a person in a manner likely to intimidate a person into responding affirmatively to the solicitation.

- Continuing to solicit a person after that person has communicated that he or she does not want to be solicited.

- Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly obstructing the safe or free passage of a person being solicited or requiring that person to take evasive action to avoid physical contact with the person making the solicitation.

- Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly making physical contact with or touching another person without that person's consent.

- Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly using obscene or abusive language or gestures intended or likely to cause a reasonable person to fear imminent apprehension of bodily harm.

In addition, under the bill, panhandlers would be prohibited from soliciting for money within 15 feet of any entrance or exit to a bank (if the person soliciting does not have the bank's permission to be on bank property) or within 15 feet of an ATM (if the person soliciting does not have permission of the ATM's owner to be there).

Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw, the ranking Democrat on the House Criminal Justice Committee, said there are several reasons for opposing House Bill 5103.

“I think there are a lot of problems with this legislation,” Guerra said. “First, I think there are existing laws on the books that could be applied to some these situations, Also, we already know the courts struck down the law against panhandling and there have been other federal court rulings against similar attempts to outlaw aggressive panhandling.”

“I also have to question why we’re pushing a bill like this one forward,” Guerra continued. “Not only is it unlikely to be upheld by the courts; but even if it were, what we’d be doing is fining people who don’t have money in the first place. When they couldn’t pay their fine, we’d be putting them in the county jail at a cost to the taxpayers. There are a lot of more pressing things the Legislature ought to be doing right now, like dealing with the (Detroit schools) crisis.”

The House Criminal Justice Committee has held a hearing on the bill. No vote was taken.