City panhandling law: needed, but no thing of beauty

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Somewhat cumbersome and unwieldy, fraught with exemptions and full of other tedious minutiae, Rochester's anti-panhandling ordinance tumbled out of City Hall chambers and onto the streets of Rochester this week.

And like any law that seeks to restrict free will and personal liberty, it had to be written carefully so as not to invoke the frustration of ACLU lawyers who have wreaked havoc on other cities' attempts to pass anti-panhandling legislation.

Make no mistake about it. In the interest of public safety Rochester needs this law.

In Portland, which still allows panhandlers to plant themselves on traffic islands downtown, the density of traffic keeps the pace slow and safer.

But on North Main near the Spaulding, the site of many serious accidents where we've all seen motorists cruising 50 mph and more, is no place to be stopping and passing a buck to a man with a sign.

Still, every panhandling scenario is different. That's where Rochester Police will have to step up bigtime, making quick decisions on who's flouting the law, and who's a victim.

Part of the ordinance states, "No person shall knowingly distribute any item to, receive any item from, or exchange any item with the occupant of any motor vehicle when the vehicle is located in the roadway."

City Attorney Terrence O'Rourke said on Friday that motorists as well as panhandlers could be subject to prosecutions under the law, with first offenses of $25, second offenses at $250 and third offenses at $500.

The ordinance does have exemptions, and they'll likely be adding more.

One post regarding the law on the Rochester Police Facebook page, quipped that paying the toll at the Spaulding's Rochester toll booth would now be illegal.

Other posts questioned whether it applies to the Good Samaritan looking to help a fellow in need as well as the panhandlers.

As we said earlier, yes, indeed. Both the panhandler and the panhandlee, can be fined to the full extent of the law.

O'Rourke said, however, that police and prosecutors will have wide discretion in who gets fined and who doesn't.

Rochester Police Chief Michael Allen has voiced his support for the law, and Rochester Police Capt. Gary Boudreau said on Thursday that supervisors will be briefing officers about how they want to proceed.

"As supervisors we need to talk to staff and have a good discussion on it," Boudreau said.

Some of the current exemptions include: passing items from a vehicle to a pedestrian on private property, in a parking area, someone helping someone in a vehicle after an accident or having a medical emergency and a law enforcement officer performing their duties.

So you can still get handed a ticket. What a relief.

So, like Obamacare, Rochester's new anti-panhandling ordinance will be a work in progress and adjustments and rewrites are likely in the offing.

Nothing trumps the public safety aspect, however.

Better they be back on the sidewalk and off the street, where they may be an annoyance but they aren't a public safety hazard.

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