Panhandling causes concern, but is protected by Constitution

Published 7:10 pm Thursday, November 21, 2019

A local woman’s uncomfortable encounter with a panhandler in the parking lot of the Washington Walmart caused a stir on social media Wednesday, also prompting a response from local law enforcement agencies.

But according to Washington Police and Fire Services Director Stacy Drakeford, the issue of panhandling is more complicated than it might seem, with First Amendment implications going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday when Pinetown resident Blair Rogers Giles says she was approached by a panhandler in the Walmart parking lot. She had already loaded her groceries and children in the car and was about to pull out of her parking space when a man tapped on her window.

After waving him off, she says the man made a rude gesture at her before walking away. Giles says in her post that the encounter was scary, especially given stories of abductions, attacks and scams that make headlines across the country.

“People need to be aware of these things,” Giles said via Facebook Messenger on Thursday.

From the law enforcement side, both the Washington Police Department and the Beaufort County Sheriffs Office sent cars to the scene. Drakeford said an officer spoke with both the man involved in the incident and the management of the store. While businesses have the option to ban unwanted individuals from their property, panhandling is not considered a crime.

In fact, many municipalities across the country had to reconsider their own panhandling ordinances after a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case, Reed v. Town of Gilbert, ruled that laws against panhandling constitute a violation of free speech under the First Amendment.

While Washington has a few different ordinances that regulate solicitation, there is no specific ordinance on the books against panhandling. The Supreme Court ruling would complicate any attempt to creating an ordinance, Drakeford says.

Any such ordinance would have to consider the difference between passive panhandling, i.e. holding a sign or cup on the roadside, and aggressive panhandling, which involves approaching someone in a coercive or threatening manner, or continuing to follow a person after being told no.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to make sure the public feels safe without violating someone’s Constitutional rights,” Drakeford said.