The Dayton City Commission recently passed a law effectively banning panhandling along 51 major roadways. It’s not the first time the city has passed laws curbing the practice. Now, some legal advocates are already raising questions about the city’s new pedestrian safety ordinance.
At the May 23 city commission meeting, Mayor Nan Whaley was clear: the ordinance is not about panhandling.
“Nothing in this ordinance criminalizes holding a sign on the side of a roadway,” the mayor said.
Whaley insisted the aim of the new law is to protect pedestrians. But, she also acknowledged the law may affect panhandlers.
“The city is concerned about the effect of the new ordinance on panhandlers,” said Whaley. “The city is engaged with partners in the community who develop creative solutions to the underlying issues that lead people to panhandle.”
Despite lengthy arguments about intention of the law, it passed with little public debate among commissioners.
The measure bars pedestrians from coming within three feet of any operating vehicle on 51 major roadways unless the vehicles are parked at the curb or on the shoulder. It also prohibits people from loitering on medians or traffic islands unless they are crossing a street. And, it penalizes motorists who slow down or deviate from their lanes in order to interact with pedestrians violating the ordinance.
Officials say there have been more than 600 pedestrian strikes in Dayton over the past decade and the measure is needed to improve safety.
“I don’t think they really care about people’s safety," said Dayton resident Joshua Petry, one of several activists who spoke out against the measure at the meeting. "I think they just don’t want rich people to have to see these homeless people when they go downtown.”
Petry’s comments echo a debate that’s played out before in the City of Dayton.
Law professor and volunteer ACLU attorney Joseph Mead says Dayton and many other cities began actively exploring ways to contend with panhandling about 20 years ago.
“Cities were concerned about investments in downtown and wanted to basically restrict people who are experiencing homelessness or have visible poverty from being downtown and potentially deterring visitors,” he says.
He says cities began addressing street begging in a variety of ways. Some restricted panhandling to certain hours. Some forced beggars to get permits. Others banned what they deemed to be “aggressive” panhandling.
Dayton passed ordinances incorporating many of these tactics in 2011. That set of laws required panhandlers to register with the city, restricted the practice to certain daylight hours and allowed police to jail violators.
But in 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled regulations like these, in effect, violated free-speech rights. The court’s ruling prohibited cities from restricting speech based on content.
“The Supreme Court's 2015 ruling did not deal specifically with panhandling,” says Mead. “But the lesson was pretty clear.”
In 2016, Dayton repealed its panhandling ordinances.
At the same time, the city passed a set of new regulations on what it called “distribution” or the act of exchanging physical items, like money or pamphlets. The laws prohibited “aggressive distribution,” and stipulated that distributors could only approach vehicles stopped at traffic lights from the sidewalk, not on the roadway itself.
Troy Daniels, the city’s assistant prosecutor, says the ordinances, which are still in effect, are aimed at preventing dangerous behavior.
“We had people who were entering the streets while they were approaching cars that are stuck at red lights and the problem is is that once the light turns green suddenly they're just in the line of traffic. And we were having people that we were concerned would get hit and so we passed those ordinances to protect against that,” he says.
But, the regulations are complex. They’re written in a way that was initially confusing to some police officers, so the city held training sessions to boost enforcement.
Daniels says Dayton’s pedestrian safety ordinance, the one that passed late last month, expands on those 2016 regulations. He says they’re aiming to strike a balance between ensuring safety and protecting free speech rights, noting the law does not prevent pedestrians from holding signs nor does it restrict what those signs say.
Joseph Mead, with the ACLU, says Dayton’s law is a thinly veiled panhandling ban.
“Dayton has been sort of singularly focused on trying to get rid of panhandlers in a way that other cities realize: look this isn't an effective use of our law enforcement this isn't an effective use of our legal department. This isn't an effective use of our city council time,” says Mead. “We should be looking for solutions that aren't just throwing people in jail.”
Mead suggests these kind of laws, ones that officially target public safety but may also reduce panhandling, could spark a larger trend among cities.
But it’s unclear whether these laws could withstand potential future legal challenges.
For now, it will be up to Dayton police officers to determine how to best enforce the new regulations.