The appearance in recent weeks of a woman with a child panhandling in the Fred Meyer parking lot in Monroe has sparked debate on social media sites on the legality and ethics of donating to panhandlers.
The Monroe Police Department said that panhandling is legal, within limits, even when done in the company of a child, as long as that child’s basic needs are being met, which the department said they are in the process of ensuring.
Panhandling is legal largely because it has been found unconstitutional to ban begging.
In fact, last October, the ACLU sent notices to 84 cities with anti-panhandling laws informing them that those laws weren’t lawful.
“Anti-begging laws that punish that most vulnerable segment of our society are not only harsh, they are unconstitutional,” said one ACLU attorney. “No one should be thrown in jail or subjected to a fine for holding up a sign or simply asking for spare change.”
The most recent court to rule on behalf of panhandlers said that, while cities have the right to make laws against crimes such as fraud, assault and trespass, the First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to expression, including expression seeking donations.
Like many cities, Monroe does have in place a law banning aggressive panhandling. If a panhandler approaches someone in a way that a reasonable person would deem threatening; comes within a foot of a person without consent; continues to ask once a person has denied their request; blocks a pedestrian or vehicle while begging or lies while panhandling, that panhandler is breaking Monroe law.
It’s also not legal to panhandle during the dark hours, on private property or within 20 feet of a municipal building or public transportation stop.
And while seeing people panhandle with children arouses concern for the welfare of the child in many, that is not illegal either, said Sgt. Ryan Irving of the Monroe Police, although he said the police have contacted the mother seen panhandling at Fred Meyer with a child.
“Panhandling with a child is legal,” he said. “We have done a welfare check on that individual. It becomes an issue of whether that person is providing the basic necessities.”
Irving conjectured that what seems to be an increase in the presence of panhandlers around the city is due to warming temperatures.
“When the weather turns better, more people come out,” he said.