Anti-panhandling measure proposed at State House

The Cranston Herald ·

A new legislative proposal has reignited debate over panhandling in the Ocean State.

Rhode Island House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Charlene Lima (D-Dist. 14, Cranston) last week introduced House Bill 5330, which would impose fines for motorists and passengers who pass money – or any other item – to someone outside a vehicle while it is in an active lane of travel.

The measure’s co-sponsors include Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 22, Warwick), Stephen Ucci (D-Dist. 42, Johnston, Cranston), Deborah Fellela (D-Dist. 43, Johnston) and Christopher Miller (D-Dist. 16, Cranston). The House Committee on Judiciary was scheduled to take up consideration of the bill during its hearing Tuesday night.

In a statement, Lima framed the proposal as necessary to address a “growing public safety hazard.” She also said she has obtained legal opinions that indicate the legislation “will pass all constitutional muster.”

“We will find other ways to get needed donations to those in need, especially those needing to panhandle for food, medicine and shelter,” she said. “This is necessary not because we do not have compassion for those in need but for the safety of the panhandlers, the safety of the vehicle operators and the safety of all Rhode Island residents.”

Critics, however, say Lima’s proposal – the latest in a string of state and municipal measures aimed at curbing the practice of panhandling – violates free speech rights.

“We will be there [at Tuesday’s hearing], and we urge others to attend and speak out against this unconstitutional bill,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island tweeted over the weekend.

The legislation would establish fines of up to $100 for a first offense, up to $150 for a second offense and up to $250 for third and subsequent offenses. Cities and towns would be allowed to issue special permits to individuals or groups seeking to conduct roadside donation drives. An exemption would also be provided for tollbooths.

“It is the goal of this legislation to reduce the amount of injuries and fatalities suffered by pedestrians and motorists in crosswalks and on points of egress and ingress to state highways,” the bill reads. “It is not the General Assembly’s intent to prohibit anyone’s right to ‘panhandle’ but rather to provide a safe environment for the ‘panhandler’ and the motoring public.”

“It is absolutely clear that the state of Rhode Island has the right to make traffic laws designed to keep our roads safe for drivers and pedestrians,” Lima’s statement reads. “Therefore, my legislation will make it a traffic violation with substantial fines for any operator of a motor vehicle or it’s passengers, as we do with seat-belts, to pass anything out of a motor vehicle while on any road or highway while still in the active lane of travel. If any driver wants to make a donation to any person soliciting anything from the roadways or sidewalks they must exit the active lane of travel, even if stopped at a traffic signal, and park in a legally allowed manner.”

In Cranston and other communities, ordinances aimed at prohibiting panhandling have consistently faced legal challenges.

In 2016, the city and the ACLU reached a settlement over an ordinance prohibiting roadside solicitation. The settlement involved the city ceasing enforcement of the measure.

In 2017, the ACLU filed a lawsuit over an ordinance amendment approved by the City Council that sought to prohibit the passing of money or other items between the occupants of vehicles and people within roadways. In 2017, U.S. District Court Judge William Smith halted the city’s enforcement of the ordinance through a temporary restraining order. The case remains active.

“These types of ordinances do two things: they criminalize poverty, and they violate the First Amendment,” Steven Brown, the local ACLU chapter’s executive director, said in a 2017 statement.  “Both are wrong.”

Johnston also ceased enforcement of an anti-panhandling measure – dubbed the “aggressive begging” ordinance – in 2016 as a result of concerns raised by the ACLU.