Panhandling on sidewalks and roadways in Dunbar could be banned under a new, potentially legally problematic city ordinance.
City officials said the ordinance, which will edit a longstanding city policy on charitable solicitations, was in response to what they called a rise in panhandling in the area.
“Citizens expressed they’re tired of individuals approaching them when they’re going to various stores to shop,” Dunbar Mayor William Cunningham said. “A lot of seniors do not feel comfortable with unusual looking people coming up to them and soliciting money or pressuring them for assistance.”
The ordinance, which city council members debuted Jan. 6, would make it illegal to solicit money on roadways and public walkways within city limits.
It’s a copycat version of a Putnam County ordinance put in place in 2010, Cunningham said.
As written, people could panhandle on private property; however, the ordinance would require anyone soliciting donations to use a state-issued ID to purchase a $5 temporary permit from the city. The applicant could not have any outstanding warrants.
The permit would be limited to be used 24 hours twice during a six-month period.
Additionally, local business or private property owners would have to sign off on someone soliciting donations on their property.
Private property owners already have the right under current city statutes to have someone removed from their property; the ordinance would reinforce that right specifically when it comes to panhandlers, according to city officials.
Individuals caught panhandling without a city permit would face a $100 fine for the first offense, and monetary penalties would increase for repeated violations.
Cunningham was unsure how many people experiencing homelessness resided in Dunbar and said the city did not collect that data.
Dunbar Police Department did not return a request for comment on the number of panhandlers in the city.
ACLU: Restricting panhandling ‘unconstitutional’
Prior to the official introduction of the ordinance, West Virginia’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent Dunbar city officials a letter flagging the panhandling restriction as “unconstitutional.”
“Peaceful solicitation is protected by the First Amendment,” Loree Stark, ACLU-WV legal director, wrote.
The Supreme Court has made it difficult for cities to enforce panhandling bans following a 2015 decision in a church free speech case that also bolstered judges’ ability to throw out anti-panhandling laws.
In a case stemming from Arizona, the court ruled that government regulations curtailing free speech must fulfill a “compelling government interest.”
Additionally, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers West Virginia ruled that “panhandling and solicitation of charitable contributions are protected speech.”
Billy Wolfe, ACLU-WV communications director, said the organization does not want to sue the city.
“That’s why we reached out to city officials to let them know about the serious constitutional concerns with this ordinance. If they choose to pass this ordinance and enforce it, they will be depriving people of their constitutional rights, and there are remedies for that,” he said.
Cunningham said council members had received the letter from the ACLU, however, he said Putnam County’s anti-panhandling law had not been subject to lawsuits.
Jennifer Scragg Karr, assistant prosecuting attorney in Putnam County, said the county’s solicitation law came about 10 years ago after “tons of panhandling,” which included children using buckets to raise money for Little League teams, began popping up around the county.
Karr also serves as municipal prosecutor in Dunbar. She passed Putnam’s ordinance onto Dunbar officials.
Putnam County’s anti-panhandling ordinance has not resulted in anyone coming through magistrate court, she said.
She added it has reduced the number of panhandlers in the county.
“It’s more of an educational tool,” Karr said. “If someone gets out there panhandling, then the police officer notified them they have to get the permit.”
The city of Charleston unsuccessfully tried to pass its own anti-panhandling law in 2017.
Dunbar’s ordinance will be up for a vote at the end of January.