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Cities, state battle panhandling through the lens of public safety

Published: Saturday, March 8 2014 3:25 p.m. MST

In an attempt to address the traffic safety hazards posed by panhandling, the Midvale City Council has adopted an ordinance prohibiting the 'unsafe transfer of money in a roadway.' The city plans an education campaign prior to enforcement.

Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press

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MIDVALE — A bill that passed both houses of the Utah Legislature and an ordinance recently adopted by the Midvale City Council are clearly aimed at curbing panhandling. However, neither HB101 nor Midvale's ordinance directly refer to panhandling.

“This is dealing with a challenge that we’ve seen expanding in the state of Utah," said Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, during Senate debate of HB101.

"It balances First Amendment freedom of speech and all that with the notion of public safety.”

Meanwhile, Midvale's ordinance prohibits "the unsafe transfer of money or other personal property in a roadway."

Midvale City Attorney Craig Hall said the ordinance attempts to address individuals entering roadways to accept money or other considerations.

"The ordinance has nothing to do with free speech. The ordinance has everything to do with the transfer of money between an individual and a driver or individuals in a vehicle on a roadway not intended to be a parking spot," he said.

Stopping at a stoplight or stop sign is not considered a legal parking place, he said.

"If an individual wants to pull over to the side of the road where it is appropriate to park and stop, they can exchange all the money they want," he said.

The ordinance says these transfers of money and personal property create traffic "delays, vehicle idling and air pollution and motorist frustration, annoyance, anxiety and aggressive behavior."

The city seeks to create a public atmosphere that "promotes the public's health, safety and general welfare."

In some areas of Midvale, particularly 7200 South and I-15 and in the vicinity of the Family Center, people frequently enter the street to collect donations being offered to them, Hall said.

"At 7200 South and I-15, we've had numerous near misses, accidents and injuries when individuals attempt to get money through the (car) windows. They're out there in the middle of lanes, out there in the middle of the street," he said.

While a former state law was overturned on constitutional grounds, Hall said he believes the Midvale ordinance was carefully crafted to focus on public safety. It was patterned after an ordinance in Provo, which thus far has not been challenged.

"As an experienced city attorney, I would anticipate somebody pushing back. That's why we held the public hearing. We noticed it and nobody came (to the public hearing)," he said.

The ordinance will not be enforced immediately, he said. The city prosecutors office and the Unified Police Department will first educate the public about the ordinance and ask for their cooperation.

"We're not just going to say "Oh by the way, here's your ticket.' That's not fair to them," he said.

Violations of the ordinance can be prosecuted as Class C misdemeanors, which are punishable by fines and up to 90 days in jail, although Hall said it is doubtful jail sentences would be imposed.

Provo has issued about 17 citations since its ordinance went into effect about six months ago. It proved particularly helpful during the holiday shopping season, Hall said.

Now that Midvale has led out on this issue, Hall said he believes other cities in Salt Lake County may follow suit with their own ordinances.

Nielson's bill narrowly passed out of committee, amid questions whether it met constitutional muster. But the bill readily passed in both houses of the Legislature.

Attorney Stewart Gollan of the Utah Legal Clinic, who successfully challenged Utah's previous law, did not return telephone calls seeking comment on either the newly adopted ordinance or HB101.

Gollan said an earlier draft of HB101 could pose constitutional concerns depending on how it was enforced.

The latest version of the bill prohibits people from conduct that impedes or blocks traffic on state roads, prohibits people from aggressively soliciting good or money 10 feet from an automated teller machine or entrance to a bank.

The amended bill does not, however, prohibit “temporary, spontaneous demonstrations" such people spilling into a street to celebrate a sports victory.

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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