Update: County Attorney Denise Nieman responded. See bottom of this article.
Having received numerous complaints from readers about panhandlers, we decided to contact our elected officials to see if they have anything meaningful to say on the subject. Here’s our letter to the County Commissioners Steven Abrams and Mary Lou Berger, along with County Attorney Denise Nieman and a few others.
Commissioners Abrams and Berger,
West Boca News receives frequent complaints from our readers about panhandlers, mainly at intersections.
I see them often myself at major intersections. Complaints relate to most major intersections on 441, Glades Road, Palmetto Park Road and more.
Since you are the county elected officials for West Boca, I’d like to ask you some questions on behalf of our readers regarding panhandlers and panhandling.
Do you consider panhandling to be a problem?
What, if anything, should the county do about it?
What, if anything, have you done about it?
I’ve included others as cc’s on this message, including the County Attorney, West Boca Community Council, and a few people in PBSO.
If you prefer, I would be happy to meet with you in person in or near West Boca. Or maybe Ms. Scarborough could make this a topic for a Community Council meeting and you could attend.
West Boca News
The response from the County Attorney follows:
This is a difficult issue that comes up regularly. The County has investigated and discussed panhandling many times throughout the years, including the possibility of enacting an ordinance. However, due to current laws and court cases, the County has not adopted an ordinance banning or regulating panhandling due to the difficulty of doing so within the parameters of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Marlene Everitt, a senior attorney in my office, is an expert on this topic, and has prepared a summary of the law that she recently shared with some concerned constituents. I hope this overview is helpful to you:
Streets, medians and sidewalks, hereinafter collectively referred to as ‘Right-of-Ways’ are traditional public forums and as such are protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This protection limits, but does not eliminate, a government’s ability to restrict the time, place and manner of activities in the Rights-of-Ways. However, the regulation must be the least restrictive means necessary to promote the health, safety and welfare of the public and apply equally to all individuals and groups attempting to use a public Rights of Way.
Under this analysis, it is impossible to allow some people or groups to use the Right-of-Ways and deny that right to others; irrespective of whether it is called loitering or vagrancy or whether it benefits the individual or group to which an individual belongs. Under current law, we cannot ban panhandlers from using the medians without banning firefighters and the Police Benevolent Association as well.
Notwithstanding the difficulty in prohibiting panhandling, the Board of County Commissioners has not given up on the issue. At the Commissioners’ request, staff will continue to keep abreast of what’s happening on the local, state and federal level and advise the Board of any updates or changes in the law.