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Florida ordinance targets people who give to beggars and peddlers

Supporters of the measure cite traffic safety. Critics say it violates free-speech rights.

April 12, 2010|By Lisa J. Huriash and Susannah Bryan

Reporting from Oakland Park, Fla. — Dare to buy red roses or a newspaper from a street vendor, and soon you could be breaking the law.

At least in Oakland Park, Fla.

Citing traffic safety concerns, officials in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of 42,000 tentatively approved an ordinance targeting not only panhandlers and peddlers, but the people who give to them or buy something from them.

Under the ordinance initially passed last month, anyone who responds to a beggar with money or any "article of value" or buys flowers or a newspaper from someone on the street would face a fine of $50 to $100 and as many as 90 days in jail.

"You're going to put someone in jail for giving someone a coat when it's cold or a hamburger if they're hungry?" City Commissioner Suzanne Boisvenue said Wednesday. "For me, it's so wrong."

She cast the only "no" vote at the March meeting.

Other critics say the measure violates free-speech rights and unfairly targets the homeless.

"I assume you have the right to beg," resident D. Michael Iradi said. "And anyone should have the right to give money.

"My civil right to contribute is being violated," he said.

Said Laura Hansen, chief executive of the Coalition to End Homelessness: "To make it a crime to help a human being in need? That is so antithetical to everything I know to be ethical, moral and right. We have an obligation to help each other. To penalize people for doing that makes no sense."

The ordinance had been scheduled for a final vote Wednesday, but the vote was delayed until June 16 to allow more time for the city to research the ramifications.

The measure prohibits "beggars, panhandlers or solicitors" from selling any item on a public street because it "distracts drivers from their primary duty to watch traffic and potential hazards in the road."

Those who give are covered as well, said City Atty. Donald J. Doody, because "an operator of a vehicle is prohibited from stopping his or her vehicle that is in traffic on a public street to exchange money or other things of value."

Doody said there were other places to beg or sell: Newspapers can be sold from racks and people can beg on sidewalks. "It's just a different location."

The ordinance exempts registered nonprofits and is modeled after a law in Gainesville, Fla., he said.

Boisvenue said the city was just trying to make money.

"This is a violation of the 1st Amendment," she said. "And the city of Oakland Park should not be looking for a way to imprison motorists who want to give money. And it targets the people without jobs, the homeless, at a time when the economy is the worst."

Boisvenue fears the ordinance would invite legal challenge and cost taxpayers money.

"If they are indigent, the city will have to hire an attorney to represent them," she said, noting that the city also would be paying its attorney to prosecute.

But a supporter of the ordinance, Commissioner Steven Arnst, sees it differently.

"People and cars don't mix," he said. "How would you like it if you were the person who hit somebody because somebody walked in front of you on the roadway?"

lhuriash@sunsentinel.com

sebryan@sunsentinel.com

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