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Councilor: ACLU settlement won't deter panhandling proposal

April 9, 2014

The city of Indianapolis reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union over enforcement of its panhandling ordinance, but that won't deter a City-County Council effort to pass a more restrictive law, a councilor said Wednesday morning.

“Ultimately, I see that this helps more than hinders,” Republican City-County Councilor Jeff Miller said of the ACLU settlement, in which the city agreed to drop citations against four people who were holding signs outside Circle Centre last August. The agreement was filed Friday and reported by The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Police told them to stop their activity, which was legal under current ordinances and protected by the First Amendment, ACLU Indiana Legal Director Ken Falk said.

The city can keep enforcing an ordinance against panhandlers who beg from people in their cars, Falk said, because the existing ordinance applies to all forms of solicitation in roadways and 50 feet from intersections. He said the city misapplied the code when it tried to crack down on people whose signs were aimed at downtown pedestrians. 

Miller and Democrat Vop Osili have been working for the past year on a proposal that would apply to begging from pedestrians, and Miller believes it will stand muster in court because it's similar to the existing ordinance on soliciting in roads.

“It’s focused on public safety," Miller said.

Under the proposal, all forms of solicitation, including holding signs, shaking cups and performing for tips, would be banned within 50 feet of financial transactions, as well as pedestrian intersections. Using that criteria, it would affect a large chunk of downtown.

The ordinance would apply to ATMs, banks, parking-meter pay boxes and outdoor cafes.

Miller thinks a court would uphold the new ordinance because it doesn’t try to regulate a form of speech.

“It doesn’t matter how you solicit,” Miller said. “If you’re soliciting, you need to be a safe distance from a financial transaction.”

A proposal was pending before a council committee last year, but Miller withdrew it in January to allow time for more feedback from stakeholders and to start from scratch with cleaner language. He said Osili will sponsor the new proposal, which could be introduced to the council as early as May.

“There were a lot of First Amendment problems with the ordinance that was being considered late last year,” Falk said. “We were prepared to sue if it had passed.”

Miller said he sought but didn't receive feedback from the ACLU.

Falk said one specific problem with the last proposal is that it would have banned solicitations anywhere in the city between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. Miller said the time-of-day language won’t be in the next proposal.

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