Concord’s city council halts enforcement of panhandling ordinance 

  • A man who calls himself Homer panhandles outside Market Basket in Concord in 2012. The Concord city council voted this week to stop enforcing its ordinance on panhandling. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Saturday, September 16, 2017

For now, anyone who wishes to ask for money on a Concord street corner can do so without fear of legal ramifications, providing they don’t disrupt traffic.

That’s because the Concord city council voted Monday to stop enforcing the city’s so-called “panhandling ordinance” until officials determine whether the ordinance can be reworked. The decision comes after New Hampshire’s federal court ruled last week that a nearly identical ordinance in Manchester was unconstitutional.

Some city officials are hopeful the ordinance, which technically governs the “passage of items to or from the occupant of a motor vehicle on a roadway,” can continue to exist in a different format.

Concord City Manager Tom Aspell said the city will need to look at all the information related to court cases regarding similar ordinances to see if there “might be some ideas to make this more workable from the court’s perspective,” according to footage of the meeting. Aspell noted several communities, not just in the New Hampshire but across the country, based their ordinances on Concord’s laws.

But Gilles Bissonnette, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, was doubtful that would be possible after last week’s ruling.

“As a result of the ruling, this type of ordinance is unconstitutional,” Bissonnette said. “I’m not sure it can be litigated in any constitutional way.”

Bissonnette should know; the ACLU, along with New Hampshire Legal Aid and advocacy groups for the homeless population in Concord, worked alongside the city council in 2013 to draft the current ordinance. The law predates similar ordinances in Manchester, Somersworth and Rochester by two years. A sunset clause put the ordinance back on the table in 2015, when the council decided to make it permanent.

At the time, Bissonnette said his organization was not opposed to the ordinance. But rulings about free speech, and actions surrounding free speech, have changed since then. He referenced Cutting vs. Portland, a 2015 case where a Maine circuit court judge ruled that the city’s ordinance prohibiting “standing, sitting, staying, driving, or parking on median strips” was unconstitutional.

“After that, our stance shifted from non-opposition to opposition,” Bissonnette said. “The law is so fundamentally different now.”

Bissonnette went on to say Concord’s ordinance is flawed because it is not written to address traffic and safety issues that may be caused by panhandling, but an individual’s right to solicit funds. If a police officer wanted to arrest someone for interrupting traffic, he said, laws are already in place for that purpose.

Amanda Grady Sexton, city councilor at-large and chairwoman of the Public Safety Board, is hoping the players who helped craft the first ordinance will come together again to fix it. She said she will be scheduling a meeting of the advisory committee as soon as she receives a formal referral from the council.

But Grady Sexton said taking another look at the ordinance may not result in its restructuring.

“I think this is a good opportunity to look at whether there is a possibility for redrafting, but also a chance to check on the status of panhandling in Concord and whether there is a need for the ordinance at all,” Grady Sexton said.

Back when the ordinance was first passed in 2013, there was a “real necessity” for it, Grady Sexton said. The council heard stories from the community of panhandlers jumping into the street, sometimes nearly causing traffic accidents, particularly around Interstate 93’s Exit 14.

It wasn’t just the traffic disruptions, Grady Sexton said, that bothered residents, but what the presence of panhandlers seemed to convey about the city. She said Concord is “very generous” with the resources it has to offer for the homeless and needy. “When people were seeing those people with signs saying they needed help, it seemed to counter what resources Concord has to offer,” she said.

Since then, panhandling has dropped in the city, Grady Sexton said. She gave credit to the police department, which she said has focused its efforts on educating panhandling perpetrators, as well as motorists who might be inclined to pass money out their window to panhandlers.

In 2015, police received 93 complaints for panhandling, 129 complaints in 2016 and 107 complaints as of Aug. 31 this year. But those complaints, which are overwhelmingly resident-generated, certainly do not match the number of citations police have given out for panhandling.

Police cited 17 people in violation of the ordinance in 2015, a few of which were repeat offenders, Osgood said. In 2016, that number dropped to five citations, and as of Aug. 31, no citations had been given out for panhandling in 2017.

There is currently no scheduled meeting for the Public Safety Board.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)