An anti-panhandling law approved three months ago has not yet taken effect on Jacksonville’s streets.
The reason for the delay: City officials say it takes time to update existing laws and to train police.
The law prohibits anyone from using the public right of way for commercial panhandling for cash. The law was billed as a way to improve traffic safety, but much of the discussion centered on panhandling.
The city’s Public Works Department had a deadline of Sunday to develop a permitting process for certain groups like firefighters to solicit money legally. Now it’s up to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office to begin training its officers in how to file a citation.
The amendment to the traffic code prohibits anyone from stopping or standing in a median unless they are crossing the road. The bill also prohibits use of public right of way for commercial activity, while people cannot interact with someone in a vehicle. The person giving money to someone in the median also could be cited.
Sixteen of 19 City Council members passed the amended code Feb. 14 after almost an hour of debate. Reggie Gaffney Jr., Joyce Morgan and Brenda Priestly Jackson voted no. Many opponents argued the bill would criminalize homelessness and poverty.
City officials state that the amended code “isn’t a panhandling law. ”
“The focus is on any pedestrian interaction with a vehicle, regardless of the purpose,” a city spokeswoman wrote in an email.
Asked why the amended code isn’t active yet, city officials said council members gave Public Works officials 90 days to develop the policy. That expired Sunday.
Now the city’s police officers have to be trained. “As an agency, we will move forward in monitoring and take the appropriate actions, as necessary,” said Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office spokesman Allyn Kelly.
Kelly said people who violate the law will get an educational notice the first time. The second offense will be an official warning, and the third offense may be an additional warning or a civil citation up $100.
A fourth offense bring a civil citation, and that person could be subject to arrest or a notice to appear before a judge, Kelly said.
City Councilman Al Ferraro cosponsored the changes to the traffic code with Councilman Kevin Carrico.
Ferraro said the change does not refer to people standing on a corner and exercising First Amendment rights; it is a safety issue because it is dangerous for people to walk around a car stopped at an intersection and distract drivers, he said.
Speaking Feb. 9 on First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross, Carrico said the bill made 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. He added that it is “not an attack on homelessness” and doesn’t outlaw panhandling.
The bill pointed to 2022 statistics showing that 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. Complaints to the Sheriff’s Office about panhandling increased to more than 2,500 in 2021.
Before the February vote, Jacksonville attorney Alvin Barlow wondered whether the law will stop people from panhandling, including those who are “starving” or have children to feed. He added that City Council cannot legislate a person’s behavior — “only God can do that.”
Councilwoman Jackson wondered whether the bill was “creating a crime,” adding that there are ways to use police resources other than actions that will “disproportionately impact those in our midst who are the most vulnerable.”
The bill set up a permitting process for charitable fundraising for groups such firefighters. Exemptions also include law enforcement, fire and rescue or other government employees or contractors who are working in medians, as well as newspaper street sales.
City officials did not respond to numerous requests for specific information about the process for getting a permit to fundraise in a median. As of last week, nothing appeared on the city’s website regarding the permitting. Details are expected eventually at websites for Online/Electronic Permit Submission or Right Of Way Permitting.