GOP lawmakers push to broaden definition of panhandling

Indiana lawmakers are trying to broadly expand the definition of panhandling so that it effectively bans the activity in all of downtown Indianapolis.

The proposed change, which was added to Senate Bill 335 during a House Courts and Criminal Code Committee meeting on Wednesday, would make panhandling illegal within 50 feet of any ATM; entrance or exit of a bank, business or restaurant; public monument; or place where any “financial transaction” occurs.

The bill’s definition of “financial transaction” includes any exchange of money that is received by a business, parking meter, parking garage, public transportation authority facility or pay station, or restaurant.

That means panhandlers could not solicit anyone within 50 feet of parking meters. The bill is “clearly designed to drive this sort of activity away from downtown,” said Ken Falk, legal director for the ACLU of Indiana.

Current state law makes it a criminal offense to panhandle within 20 feet of an ATM or entrance to a bank or when the individual being solicited is at a bus stop, in a vehicle or in the sidewalk dining area of a restaurant.

The House Courts and Criminal Code Committee approved the bill unanimously, making it eligible for consideration by the full House.

Falk said the ACLU already views the state’s current panhandling law as unconstitutional because it limits certain types of expression while allowing others. He said the proposal to make the law even more restrictive is “excessive and it strikes me as clearly unconstitutional.”

“There is no place that a person downtown is going to be able to engage in activity in which courts have held is clearly protected by the First Amendment,” Falk said.

But House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said the legislation is similar to language that has been used in other states and upheld by courts.

Bosma criticized the city of Indianapolis for not better handling its panhandling situation, which he described as “out of control.” He said he’s heard from visitors who say they came here for a convention but have decided they won’t return because of all the panhandling downtown.

“I think it’s very appropriate that we deal with it,” Bosma said. “The city council has been unable or unwilling to do so. And again, that’s their job. But this is our state capital and it’s impacting economic development.”

Bosma said his office and the city of Indianapolis have been discussing the issue and he believes they found “a reasonable compromise” with the language that was added to SB 335.

Representatives of the Indy Chamber and Visit Indy testified in support of the new panhandling definition. No one testified in opposition to it.

In a statement, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office did not take a position on the issue.

“As with all changes to the criminal code, should the amendment to SB 335 pass into law, we will work closely with our Marion County public safety partners to study its effect on our law-enforcement efforts,” Hogsett’s spokeswoman, Taylor Schaffer, said in an email to IBJ.

House Democratic leaders said Thursday afternoon they were not familiar with the language, but state Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis, said panhandling rules should be set at the city level.

“It sounds like another one of those overreaching bills of which we think we can do it better at the state,” Shackleford said.

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray also wasn’t aware of the amendment on Thursday afternoon, but said panhandling in downtown Indianapolis is “a growing problem.”

“I acknowledge the city of Indianapolis is trying,” Bray said. “It’s a difficult thing to fix.”

The city of Indianapolis has taken some steps toward addressing the problem in recent years. For example, in February 2019, the City-County Council approved spending $300,000 on services to assist the homeless and panhandling population.

In 2018, Republican Councilor Mike McQuillen introduced a proposal to ban people from sitting and lying down in downtown’s Mile Square, but he withdrew the measure after it sparked criticism.

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8 thoughts on “GOP lawmakers push to broaden definition of panhandling

    1. Yup. And what he does in his legal business with Clay Township, Carmel City Center Community Redevelopment Corporation, Vigo County Capital Improvement Board, etc. is far worse than what any panhandler has ever done to my own pocketbook.

  1. This is the first time I think I have ever agreed that the state legislature might be doing a good thing for Indy. I almost never think the legislature should pass laws limiting local autonomy, but in this case Indy has been frozen into inaction unable to come up with a decent solution to this problem. And Yes, it is a real problem for Indy.

    I am just going to guess that just one too many state legislatures got panhandled.

  2. As the seat of State government, the legislature has a legitimate interest in the downtown Indy environment. The story indicates leadership at the Indianapolis Mayoral level was involved in discussions and did not take a position. In other words, the typical response – nothing.
    It is time for the Indianapolis Mayor to put on his big boy pants and stop quaking in fear of the ACLU. Likewise, the ACLU needs to focus on something that is a legitimate threat to liberty rather than ways to diminish the quality of life downtown.
    I appreciate the legislature showing some leadership. Panhandling is out of control and compromises investment in the central business district.

  3. The quality of life for everyone. I do not buy in to the philosophy that the “panhandlers” downtown are people down on their luck who just need a break. Most behave in a manner that suggests they are mentally ill, living on the street with no place to go.
    Women should not have to avoid walking downtown at lunchtime because a dangerous person is probably going to follow her begging for money, his dialogue becoming more profane with each step.
    People should expect to wait at the crosswalk without being accosted by dangerous people shouting profanity while shaking them down.
    The ACLU needs to accept their vision of who is being victimized and who is the abuser needs to be altered in most circumstances when we talk downtown. Where is the ACLU in advocating access to mental health services for the “panhandlers”?

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