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Albemarle County to stop enforcing panhandling ordinance

Law to undergo legal review

<p>Charlottesville attorney Jeff Fogel said the ordinance violates the First Amendment.</p>

Charlottesville attorney Jeff Fogel said the ordinance violates the First Amendment.

The Albemarle County Police Department will stop enforcing a panhandling ordinance while it undergoes a legal review by the County Attorney’s Office.

The ordinance prohibits solicitation and the distribution of literature on public roadways and medians.

The review will determine whether it violates the First Amendment and covers too large an area.

Panhandling is treated as a minor violation of the law under the ordinance, said Colonel Steve Sellers, Albemarle County chief of police. Since March, Sellers said only two panhandling arrests have occurred in Albemarle County.

“Normally officers will try to help find services for the homeless, if they are homeless. Occasionally officers will purchase food for them,” Sellers said. “If they continue to come back and the officers think it is a problem, they’ll give a verbal warning. If it continues, they will write a summons.”

If the case is taken to court, the judge typically dismisses it or gives the panhandler a light fine, Sellers said.

The legal review was inspired by a letter from Charlottesville attorney Jeff Fogel to County Attorney Larry Davis in late September.

“If the government is to restrict the First Amendment, it must have a substantial reason to do so and it must do so in what the courts call a narrow tailoring,” Fogel said. “To have a ban on any solicitation or any distribution of literature in any road in the county is much more than they could possibly justify.”

During the review, the County Attorney’s Office will look at recent court cases and determine what proof is necessary to demonstrate that panhandling presents a safety issue.

The review could be completed as early as December. At that point, the ordinance may be repealed or revised.

The law also must be enforced equally going forward, Fogel said.

“The county has to remember that every March it allows the firefighters to ask for donations to the March of Dimes in what they call their Silver Boot Campaign,” Fogel said. “They have to apply the same rules to the firefighters as everybody else.”

Sellers said the County Attorney’s Office may end up relying on existing laws in the state rather than the ordinance to address the issue since — as Fogel said — they cover many issues related to solicitation.

“If there are concerns about people walking out into traffic, they already have state laws that prohibit it,” Fogel said. “If the concerns are that cars stop and block other cars, that’s already in violation of state traffic laws.”

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