Atlanta City Council passes new anti-panhandling law

Atlanta could see tougher crackdowns on aggressive panhandlers under an ordinance passed by the City Council.

The legislation was touted as a way for police to regulate aggressive panhandling after years of non-enforcement of the city’s current law, which dates to 2005. It passed with little debate by a 14-0 vote on Monday afternoon.

That was in sharp contrast to other recent attempts to create more rigorous and enforceable anti-panhandling laws, which drew sharp reaction in public meetings.

Like commercial solicitation laws passed in 1996 and 2005, the legislation outlaws begging for money within 15 feet of ATM machines and parking lot pay boxes.

But the new law also makes it illegal to monetarily solicit someone who is within 15 feet of a building entrance or exit. The same goes for someone standing in line to enter a building or event facility. The regulations would apply equally throughout the city, with no special provisions for tourist areas.

Mayor Kasim Reed is expected to sign the legislation.

The city’s current panhandling ordinance has not been enforced with jail time, according to Atlanta police and attorneys. That’s apparently because the seven-year old law allows for for warnings, written citations and court summons for aggressive panhandlers, but not for arrests.

Panhandlers have been arrested for related charges, such as disorderly conduct, however.

In September, a divided City Council passed a bill calling for up to 180 days in jail for a first offense of aggressive panhandling, which included blocking someone’s path while asking them for money, following or walking alongside the solicited person, using profane or abusive language, or touching the solicited person.

Panhandlers also would be prohibited from making “any statement, gesture, or other communication which a reasonable person … would perceive to be a threat.”

Reed promptly vetoed the ordinance, saying adding penalties to the city’s current law would not be effective.

But the latest ordinance was billed a compromise, with lighter minimum penalties and clear guidelines, after Reed and City Councilman Michael Julian Bond— author of the vetoed legislation — met to discuss the issue. The substitute ordinance prohibits panhandlers from continuing to ask for money after they have been told no.

Upon first conviction, a violator could be sentenced to up to 30 days of community service. A second conviction for aggressive panhandling would result in a mandatory 30 days in jail. Upon the third or future convictions, panhandlers would be required to serve a mandatory minimum of 90 days in jail.

“This is not a heartless piece of legislation,” said Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms. She said judges would be able to make assistance available for people who need social services.

Bond said a number of the most aggressive panhandlers in Atlanta are not homeless.

“This legislation protects our citizens from those wolves who - to the detriment of those truly in need - cloak themselves in sheep’s clothing,” he said. “For those who need it, they will be able to obtain the help and services they so desperately require.”