Local

Sacramento County settles lawsuit, can now enforce panhandling ban

David “Doc” Walker has a hop in his step as he secures money from a passing car while holding a sign that says “Hungry Struggling Model” near Howe Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard in 2001. Sacramento County now plans to enforce a ban on panhandling in medians, near ATMs and at gas stations.
David “Doc” Walker has a hop in his step as he secures money from a passing car while holding a sign that says “Hungry Struggling Model” near Howe Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard in 2001. Sacramento County now plans to enforce a ban on panhandling in medians, near ATMs and at gas stations. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento County has settled a federal lawsuit over panhandling restrictions, clearing the way for enforcement of an ordinance banning solicitation in medians, near ATMs and other locations.

The settlement was formalized Wednesday when attorneys representing the county and the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee filed a motion in U.S. District Court asking for the case to be dismissed, said attorney Mark Merin, representing the committee.

The plaintiffs agreed to settle because the county amended its panhandling ordinance to allow for charity solicitation not long after the lawsuit was filed, Merin said. The committee sought to protect solicitation.

The committee is an advocacy group that publishes a bimonthly newspaper, which homeless people distribute in exchange for donations.

Sacramento County agreed to pay $15,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union, which also represented the plaintiffs, and $5,000 to a member of the committee.

“Now we can move forward and enforce the ordinance,” said Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan, who proposed the panhandling ordinance in May. “There’s not a community where you can’t see it.”

The Board of Supervisors amended an existing ordinance by restricting aggressive panhandling in areas of unincorporated Sacramento County where people feel vulnerable to coercion. The ordinance was passed in response to complaints from residents and business associations in Arden Arcade, Fair Oaks and south Sacramento, among other places.

County officials aren’t sure when enforcement will begin. The ordinance calls for a 30-day education period for the public, and the legal settlement included a requirement that the Sheriff’s Department and any other county officials enforcing the law receive instruction about the new restrictions.

Merin wrote a summary of the law that will be used for the instruction. It includes the places where panhandling is banned, including gas stations, and specifies that offenders should be cited with an infraction.

Undersheriff Jamie Lewis said enforcement will begin in “early spring” but said he could not be more specific. He said he wants to make sure deputies and the public are properly educated about the law.

He also said he needed to “manage expectations” about how much enforcement the Sheriff’s Department can provide. The department does not have the resources to direct deputies to actively seek out violators and instead will respond to complaints about aggressive panhandling, he said.

While there has been some discussion about having code enforcement officers enforce the ordinance, Lewis said the Sheriff’s Department will need to handle the bulk of the work. Homeless panhandlers can have substance-abuse or mental-health issues that can lead to potentially dangerous conflicts, he said.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Merin said he had mixed feelings about the settlement. He said he’s pleased that the lawsuit forced the county to remove an unconstitutional restriction related to charity solicitation, but he remains dissatisified with the ordinance because he believes it attempts to cover up a problem created by economic hardship.

“This is clearly a social problem that can’t be dealt with through prohibitions,” he said. “It needs to be handled through social programs.”

Merin said panhandling is a constitutional right and that the committee will make sure it is protected as the county begins enforcement.

Call The Bee’s Brad Branan, (916) 321-1065. Follow him on Twitter @BradB_at_SacBee.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

  Comments