Police say overturned begging law will make prosecuting panhandlers tougher

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April 12, 2004 // UPDATED 1:14 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Ordinance forbidding begging violates First Amendment, says district court judge

Until recently, Minneapolis police officers could charge panhandlers with violating the city's antibegging ordinance, even if they were not unruly. For now, police have to wait for the bad behavior before taking action.

Hennepin County District Court Judge Beryl Nord ruled March 30 that people have a First Amendment right to stand on the street corner and beg. The city's ordinance was too broad, she said.

"[T]here is neither a compelling state interest in prohibiting begging nor is the statute narrowly drawn," her ruling said.

Nord's decision protects nonaggressive beggars from preemptive action. Her ruling threw out a begging charge against a Ned Devon McDonald, who was standing near the intersection of Hennepin and Lyndale avenues asking passing motorists for money.

Her ruling threw out the city ordinance, too. Will the decision change how often and aggressively Downtowners are panhandled?

First Precinct Inspector Rob Allen called Nord's ruling "fairly significant" in terms of dealing with the core group of chronic, aggressive beggars -- one to two dozen people who will swear at passersby, block their path or otherwise try to intimidate them for loose change.

Allen calls Gordon D. Smith, 48, a classic example.

Last summer, Allen was walking around Downtown in shorts and a T-shirt, hands full of shopping bags, he said. He saw Smith panhandling a woman, screaming at her. "Then he turns around and runs smack into me," he said.

Police have arrested Smith 51 times on various charges, according to the police records department. They have charged him 15 times with begging or panhandling -- sometimes just for begging, sometimes for multiple complaints, such as begging and disorderly conduct or begging and consuming in public.

Following Nord's ruling, police can still arrest aggressive panhandlers and charge them with disorderly conduct or assault, Allen said. Without the antibegging ordinance, officers can't get them off the street until they start causing trouble.

The city also had an easier time convicting someone on a begging charge than a disorderly conduct charge. An officer could testify to seeing the begging. For disorderly conduct, the prosecution needs to have a victim testify.

What about pedestrian rights?

Tom Hoch, head of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association and head of Downtown's historic Theater Group, said Nord's ruling didn't surprise him.

He questioned at what point beggars begin to abridge people's rights to be left alone, but said the First Amendment arguments are compelling.

Hoch said he gets panhandled at least three times a week.

"I am not threatened, but I am here every day. I probably have a higher tolerance for the behavior than the average person," he said. "But when I see the panhandlers work a theater crowd, and follow people down the street and I get complaints, that is a problem for me."

Allen said officers charged 248 people with begging in Downtown's 1st Precinct in 2003, where begging was the only charge made. They charged 58 people in the first three months of 2004.

Jana Metge, coordinator for Citizens for a Loring Park Community and a crime-prevention volunteer in Phillips, said the city could take another shot at writing the ordinance.

The issue of begging is complex and the code might need more definition, she said. For instance, some might argue that buskers who play music, such as her friend Jerry Rau, is a beggar, and she would disagree with that.

Metge also appeared frustrated with the ruling.

"It would sure be nice if they would think about the public safety rights of taxpaying, law abiding citizens and give us some relief," she said.

Dana Banwer, Deputy City Attorney, said the city will not appeal the ruling. Her office is reviewing other jurisdictions' policies and plans to recommend the Council "move swiftly" to pass a new ordinance.