PHOTO panhandling sign

The Spotsylvania Board of Supervisors is considering a repeal of the county’s panhandling ordinance after county staff reported that such laws are increasingly being challenged in court on First Amendment grounds.

In 2015, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Robert Reynolds, a homeless man in Henrico County who had been fighting that county’s prohibition of solicitation on highways and median strips on public safety grounds. The appellate court noted that despite numerous citizen complaints, there was “no other empirical evidence in the record of actual problems caused by panhandling or soliciting from medians.” The justices cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires localities to prove that there are no other ways to address their public safety concerns.

Panhandling creates uncomfortable emotions in most people. They want to help, but it’s impossible to tell just by looking at someone if they are legitimately in need or faking homelessness in order to dupe the public into giving them money. And panhandlers who beg on busy roads or highway median strips create a traffic hazard.

Henrico County came up with an elegant solution to the problem that does not infringe on panhandlers’ constitutional rights.

In 2017, Henrico officials put up large signs at 10 problem intersections that read: “Please do not give money to persons in the median.” The signs also included a phone number to reach the county’s social service agencies.

Henrico Deputy County Administrator Brandon Hinton said that there was a significant drop in both intersection crashes and people panhandling in the medians after the signs went up, calling it “a huge public safety success for us.”

That’s what Spotsylvania County should do, too. The county’s current ordinance prohibits “the solicitation of contributions of any nature from the occupants of motor vehicles,” or the distribution or sale of any items “on the highways, public roadways and medians within the county.”

County staff suggested erecting “No Loitering” signs at high-crash intersections frequented by panhandlers, including the Spotsylvania Towne Centre and Bragg Road intersection on State Route 3 and the Southpoint Parkway intersection on U.S. 1 in Massaponax.

“No loitering” ordinances are useful, especially if panhandlers disrupt certain businesses by hanging out in front of them too long. Panhandlers who become aggressive or threatening can be arrested under other public safety ordinances. But for those who simply ask for spare change, such heavy-handed enforcement is overkill.

Panhandlers will continue to beg in the medians at high-traffic locations as long as generous motorists make it worth their while. When drivers stop giving them cash, they will go elsewhere—as Henrico County quickly discovered. The City of Hampton also adopted this strategy in 2017 to deter highway panhandling.

Unlike a “No Loitering” sign, Henrico’s elegant solution does not violate panhandlers’ First Amendment free speech and assembly rights, prevent them from talking to or soliciting money from passersby, or restrict them in any way. The police don’t need to be called to enforce it, and the county doesn’t need to spend resources punishing people whose only offense is asking for a handout.

What it does do is to discourage drivers from acting on their otherwise commendable charitable impulses in an unsafe and inappropriate place. At the same time, the signs give those who feel guilty about not helping a way to redirect their generosity, while extending a helping hand to panhandlers who are ready to accept it.

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The (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star