The Casper City Council voted this week in favor of a new ordinance that would provide clearer rules on panhandling.
Under the proposed ordinance, panhandling will be banned within 20 feet of areas with heightened personal privacy concerns, like ATMs, bus stops and sidewalk cafes, according to a recent memo from City Attorney John Henley to City Manager Carter Napier.
It would also be prohibited in areas with increased public safety concerns, such as high-traffic or high-speed roadways. Such roadways include First, Second, 12th, 13th and 15th streets, as well as Highway 258, Highway 254 and Interstate 25.
Aggressive panhandling would be illegal in all areas. Panhandling would be defined as aggressive if it involved obscene language, blocking someone’s way, touching someone without his or her consent or continuing to solicit from an individual after receiving a negative response.
“I hope when we are enforcing this law that we are doing so in a fair and just manner and not just targeting vulnerable citizens in the community,” said Councilman Jesse Morgan, who voted in favor of the measure.
Explaining that he’s seen various groups, like the city’s fire department, asking for donations downtown, Morgan said he believed it was important not to discriminate against any citizens who may violate the law.
Most of the Council supported the ordinance, with the exception of Councilman Dallas Laird, who firmly objected. He warned that the new law could lead to a future lawsuit.
“Asking for money is freedom of speech and it is not illegal,” Laird said.
The councilman said he didn’t believe the ordinance was needed to protect citizens because the city already has laws against assault and breaching the peace.
Laird also voiced his objections at a work session last month, calling the ordinance a “direct attack” on the city’s homeless population.
A public hearing was held prior to the vote, but only two residents addressed the Council.
Kenneth Bates, who won a seat on the City Council during Tuesday’s election, briefly stated that the new law had his support.
Another resident also spoke in favor of the measure. He explained that he was concerned about panhandling because he believed many solicitors use the money for alcohol or drugs.
Henley told the Council last month that a new ordinance was needed because panhandling appears to be increasing and the police department has asked for clearer direction about how to manage solicitors.
The attorney believes the proposed ordinance actually protects an individual’s right to panhandle because it acknowledges that there are appropriate places to solicit money.
“The old statute was so broad and ambiguous, it would be difficult for the police officers to know what was constitutionally accepted panhandling versus not,” Henley previously said.
The ordinance must pass two more rounds of voting to take effect.