The Jacksonville City Council is set to vote Tuesday on a bill to get panhandlers off roadway medians.
But opponents say that bills like Jacksonville’s just criminalize poverty, punishing those who are poor and opening the city to legal challenges.
Proposed by District 2 Councilman Al Ferraro and District 4 Councilman Kevin Carrico, Jacksonville’s bill prohibits the use of the public roads “in a manner that interferes with the safe and efficient movement of people and property,” its summary states.
The bill also prohibits anyone from stopping or standing in a median unless they are crossing the road. Nor can people interact with someone in a vehicle. And the bill does not allow “any use of public right-of-way for commercial activity.”
Speaking Thursday on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross, Carrico said the bill makes it illegal to be in a median to panhandle, solicit funds for a charity, sell something or just “hang out” because it is a dangerous place to be.
“It does become a public safety issue,” Carrico said. “So making this act illegal protects our citizens, which is why we are designed to do in government. It is just not panhandling. It is anyone soliciting. … It does criminalize the person giving the dollar too. It wouldn’t be fair to just punish the person asking.”
Joining Carrico on First Coast Connect was Jacksonville attorney Al Barlow, who has been speaking out recently on this bill and other laws that crack down on panhandling. Just because there might be a legal right to do something doesn’t mean it is morally correct, he said. The bill as written does allow legitimate fundraising; it is”immoral and it is hypocritical,” he said.
“They will allow permitting for firemen and adults 18 or older to go out and do the very same thing that he just said this bill is against,” he said. “In other words, if they have a permit, they can still go out off the curb and talk to people in the cars. The only reason they put that amendment in was because some people were against it. But that amendment only makes it more hypocritical, and in my legal opinion, fodder for a legal challenge is going to make it even easier to win that case.”
In contrast, Clay County two weeks ago barred any fundraising in the median, even from established groups. The move was designed to ward off any First Amendment challenges.
Clay County leaders believed their approach would survive a legal challenge because it prohibits everyone from using a public right of way “in a way that interferes with the safe and efficient movement of people or vehicles.” The law also bars any physical interaction between a pedestrian and someone in a car on a public road or highway, including anyone who stops or stands on a median when not lawfully crossing the road.
So far, no one has challenged the law legally, county officials said.
As for legitimate fundraisers like firefighters, the county had to restrict what would be perceived as any solicitation in the right of way due to public safety, County Attorney Courtney Griner said. If firefighters or a youth organization want to raise funds on a right of way, they can legally wave signs and seek funds from a sidewalk or seek property owner permission to do it in their parking lots.
Sheriff Michelle Cook said that Clay County’s new law will be monitored. If it is “not in the best interest of the community, we will come back and readdress it.”
Jacksonville’s bill includes information on local pedestrian deaths.
In 2022, Jacksonville was the sixth-worst municipality in the country for the number of pedestrians who died after they were hit by vehicles. A total of 492 people were hit and 48 killed between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2021, the bill states.
A Florida Department of Transportation study in September 2021 of pedestrian and bicycle safety strategies recommended enhanced “legislation, regulations, policies and programs to support the overall goal of eliminating fatal and serious injury crashes involving people walking and biking.”
The bill also states that panhandling increases during times of economic hardship as many people consider it a nuisance, with complaints to the Sheriff’s Office increasing to more than 2,500 in 2021.
Carrico said the proposed bill was vetted with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, which had already been researching the median safety issue. Carrico rode with the Sheriff’s Office’s blight unit to see what issues they were seeing with panhandling in the median.
“They are in support of it and it passed though our committees,” Carrico said. “We heard a lot from our constituency. We had town hall meetings, and I met with my neighbors and people are tired of seeing people in the roadways. The panhandling aspect does get attacked because that’s what we see the most when you ride.”
Jacksonville’s proposed bill would fine someone panhandling in a median up to $100, with an educational notice from the Sheriff’s Office for the first violation. For a second violation, the offender would also get an official warning and could face a trespassing charge, the bill said. A third violation means a possible civil citation, and a fourth could result in arrest, with a maximum of 10 days penalty if the violator is convicted.
To work around any possible legal challenge, the bill bans unlawful loitering on roadways as well as “physical interaction between a pedestrian and occupant of a motor vehicle.” That means the driver who might pass over a donation, as well as a would-be panhandler, could be liable for fines and penalties.
The bill also would prohibit charities who ask for money in medians. But Jacksonville’s proposed ordinance does offer a procedure for legitimate fundraising activities and not just for firefighters and nonprofit groups since that would be showing favoritism, Carrico said. Groups that request a permit will get a safety plan approved by the city. Those who prove they cannot afford a permit could get it for free, he said. That includes a homeless person who is legitimately raising funds for an organization that helps them, Carrico said.
“We want to protect their rights as well,” Carrico said. “There’s a lot of groups that do this, homeless advocates and churches who get out and raise money this way. We believe that if you can do it in a safe manner and protect yourself, and we can be a little more aware of it, then it’s OK. But it would be limited.”
Limiting a permit for a homeless person to a few days a year is wrong, Barlow responded.
“They need to eat every day,” Barlow said. “They need assistance every day, and the city is not providing the kind of assistance they need.”
The bill is set for a final vote at Jacksonville’s City Council meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. Tuesday.