Cincinnati's Sordid History with Panhandlers

Amid all the debate over a recent proposal to tax panhandlers, some people have wondered whatever happened to Cincinnati’s requirement that all beggars get city-issued I.D. badges. In a little-noticed decision, an appellate court struck down that provision more than two years ago.—-

In 2003 Cincinnati City Council approved a law that required beggars to get free panhandling permits from the city Health Department. The permits were issued at the Elm Street Clinic in Over-the-Rhine. Any beggar who violated the panhandling restrictions could have his or her permit revoked for 18 months and face other penalties.

The permit requirement was an add-on to restrictions that City Council approved in 2002, which prohibited begging in most cases after dark, banned panhandling at bus stops and near ATMs or bank entrances, and prohibited panhandlers from using abusive language.

Generally, people who stand or sit passively with a sign asking for money and without speaking are allowed to panhandle with no restrictions.

After a one-year trial period, City Council in 2004 renewed the panhandling permit provision indefinitely, but its constitutionality was challenged in court.

In January 2007 the First District Court of Appeals upheld the city’s “time and place” restrictions on panhandling, but rejected the permit requirement.

In a memo to council, then-City Solicitor J. Rita McNeil wrote that the court deemed the ordinance content-neutral and stated it was “an appropriate method by which the city of Cincinnati could further its interest in preventing crime and in facilitating the prosecution of cases of aggressive and improper solicitation.” In its ruling, the court noted, “the city’s significant interest in maintaining its economic vitality is not easily accomplished if its citizens do not feel safe or free to move about the city without being accosted by those requesting money.”

The court, however, ruled the registration provision was unconstitutional as written because the time period provided to appeal the revocation or suspension of a permit didn’t allow a timely judicial review.

Even before City Council added the restrictions in 2002-03, aggressive panhandling already was a fourth-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine. At the time, police said they found the law difficult to enforce because they had to view the threatening behavior to issue a citation.

This month City Councilman Jeff Berding proposed imposing a 2.1 percent tax on money collected by panhandlers, but withdrew the measure two days later once legal questions were raised.

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