ANAHEIM — A City Council member and an anti-crime group are pushing for an ordinance that would require panhandlers to obtain a city business license, an issue that may stir arguments over the constitutional right to beg.
Councilman Frank Feldhaus and leaders of the group "Somebody" say the city's 100 regular panhandlers operate daily, often in the same spot, making their activity a small business that should be licensed.
Federal courts have ruled that begging is protected as free speech by the 1st Amendment and cannot be outlawed, although cities can prosecute panhandlers or anyone else who blocks sidewalks or attempts to intimidate passersby.
Experts on panhandling said they know of no city that requires beggars to obtain a business license.
"If the beggars are making money from their endeavors, they should have to buy a business license just like anyone else," Feldhaus said. He said some panhandlers collect $100 or more a day.
"We would require the panhandler to wear his license on his shirt, so that everybody can see it," said Harald Martin, an Anaheim police officer and a Somebody leader.
"That way, if a panhandler gets too aggressive, he can be reported to the city and his license can be pulled," Martin said.
Somebody, a 150-member group that takes its name from the lament "The police can't solve all of our problems, but somebody's got to do something," gained some national notoriety earlier this year when it dumped 1,750 pounds of steer manure in a park to stink out drug dealers who gathered there.
City officials estimate that a beggar's business license would cost about $100 annually and say state law requires all license holders to have a permanent address, something most panhandlers do not have.
"We make cab drivers, bartenders and bar girls get licensed, so why not panhandlers?" Martin said.
Maggie Gonzalez, a retired nurse who first proposed the ordinance to Somebody, said she is constantly harassed by panhandlers when she shops near her downtown home. She said at first she gave the beggars coupons that could be redeemed for a free meal at a rescue mission "but they would throw it on the ground, spit on it and say 'thanks for nothing.' They just want money for drugs and booze."
The group plans to come to the council this month armed with petitions filled with 5,000 signatures and demand the ordinance be drawn up and adopted. Feldhaus informally suggested the ordinance during a recent council meeting. No ordinance has been written yet.
Robin Toma, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles, which argued for the panhandlers in many of the federal court cases that guaranteed beggars free speech rights, said he thinks courts would reject the ordinance if it were adopted and then challenged.
"It would seem that the goal of the ordinance would be to circumvent the prior court decisions and achieve a ban (on begging) without calling it that," Toma said. "Aside from the constitutional aspects, it also seems that it would be bad policy because the city would be taxing the people who can least afford it."
Phil Gutis, a spokesman for the ACLU's national headquarters in New York, said licenses were once required of panhandlers--in 16th-Century England.
"In the Elizabethan era, all paupers were required to get a license to beg," he said. "I guess we're going back in time."
A constitutional law expert said such an ordinance could have a tough time surviving a court challenge.
Gloria M. Sanchez, a law professor at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton, said the city would first have to prove that begging is a business and, as Toma said, show the ordinance is not an attempt to undo the court decisions guaranteeing panhandlers' free speech rights.
On the street, panhandlers said they do not want to beg, but they have no choice. They said being required to buy a business license would be one more obstacle to overcome. Some say begging is an alternative to being a criminal, something they do not want to become.
"I think the city councilman would rather have me doing this than committing crimes because I don't bother anybody," Jeff Levine, 23, said.
He stands at Katella Avenue and Harbor Boulevard, just outside Disneyland, offering to tell jokes to passersby for 25 cents apiece. He said he lives in a motel and began his curbside comedy routine two weeks ago after being fired as a cashier at a nearby restaurant.
"I look for work every day, then I come here for two or three hours," Levine said. "I make about $8 or $10. I don't do drugs. I don't drink. I don't commit crimes. There are too many people out of work and they are going to be out here because there are no more jobs out there."
Russell Clark, 49, who has a long beard and greasy hair, panhandles at the corner of Katella and Euclid avenues, waving down drivers as they pass.