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Simi Is Likely to Curb Begging

City is reviewing an ordinance that cracks down on aggressive panhandling and bans solicitations near ATMs, banks and bus stops.

October 23, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Hoping to protect its image as a squeaky-clean suburb, Simi Valley is expected to soon start cracking down on aggressive panhandling outside stores, restaurants and supermarkets, even though city officials say it is not a major problem.

An ordinance under review by the City Council also would ban begging near ATMs, banks, bus stops and on public transportation, all places where residents are most vulnerable to the solicitations of homeless people and charitable groups, officials said.

The council is expected to formally adopt the rules Monday, joining a growing list of cities across the state that are trying to protect residents from coercive solicitors while upholding the constitutional right to free speech. Santa Monica, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Riverside have similar ordinances, according to the League of California Cities.

Cities began banning the soliciting of money in public areas in 2000 when the California Supreme Court upheld Los Angeles' anti-panhandling law. The high court ruled the law was not "constitutionally suspect."

Several state and federal courts have tried to prevent California cities from enforcing anti-begging laws on the grounds they violated the state Constitution.

But the state Supreme Court's decision made it easier for cities to fend off legal challenges to their panhandling laws.

Simi Valley City Atty. David Hirsch said this type of ordinance addressed the issue of conduct, not speech.

"The concern is the solicitations can be done in a way that's intimidating and coercive," Hirsch said. "Courts have recognized that kind of conduct can be regulated in the case of time, place and mannerism."

He said the Simi Valley law was based on two Santa Monica ordinances upheld by a federal judge in 1996. In that case, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of six homeless people who argued the law criminalized indigents and forced the homeless to leave the city.

But federal Judge William D. Keller ruled the laws legally protected people in public places from fear and intimidation.

In Simi Valley, no one has spoken up against the ordinance, officials said. The issue was presented to the city by Councilman Paul Miller, a former Simi Valley police chief who said he had heard about aggressive begging from residents and business owners.

"It's just an observation I made where we could take some action," Miller said Wednesday. "Even though it's not a major problem, sometimes it's better to take action before it becomes a problem. This allows the Police Department to take appropriate action."

Miller said the law would not affect fund-raisers for groups such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts but would help residents who want to shop without feeling threatened.

The ordinance makes it a crime to ask for money in an intimidating or coercive manner anywhere in the city and bans panhandling of any kind near ATMs, banks and public transportation vehicles. It also allows private property owners to notify people either verbally or with a posted sign that solicitation is not permitted on the premises.

First-time violators would be fined $100. If caught a second time within 12 months, the figure doubles, and it climbs to $500 for a third violation, Hirsch said.

Councilwoman Barbra Williamson said she has seen solicitors become verbally abusive to people who refused to give them money. "People are pretty good-hearted," she said. "But when you walk by and respectfully decline to contribute, and these people get hostile, then we take offense."

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