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Repeat Panhandling Could Lead to Jail

Amendments to the city's six-year-old aggressive solicitation ordinance could mean jail time for repeat offenders.

Panhandling in Fredericksburg could soon become a bit more like baseball: three strikes and you're out. 

Under a proposal before the City Council tonight, Fredericksburg Police Chief David Nye will ask that repeat violations of the city's aggressive solicitation ordinance be recategorized as a class one misdemeanor. If adopted, the ordinance would be effective immediately. 

In a memo from Nye to City Manager Beverly Cameron explaining the need for the ordinance, Nye writes that 23 individuals were charged with aggressive solicitation in 2010. 

"Of those 23 charged, 12 individuals have had two or more convictions for the offense since the ordinance was first enacted," writes Nye. "One individual was charged on fourteen separate occasions for aggressive solicitation in 2010 alone."

The city first adopted its aggressive solicitation ordinance in 2005 in response to complaints about panhandling in Fredericksburg and concerns about its impact on visitors to downtown. The ordinance classified panhandling as a class four misdemeanor and was designed to target panhandlers who hold signs at traffic intersections looking for charity in passing motorists. 

The ordinance entirely prohibits people standing in the street or the median to from soliciting contributions from passing vehicles. The ordinance also prohibits solicitors from approaching someone in a way which could case them to fear bodily harm, continuing to ask for money after being rebuffed, non-consensual physical contact between solicitor and solicitee, blocking a pedestrian or vehicle, the use of threatening gestures, panhandling within 20 feet of an ATM and panhandling in groups of three or more. 

"While the ordinance initially provided an effective means of discouraging the unlawful behavior, the classification of the offense as a class four misdemeanor allowed only for a maximum penalty of up to $250 and no jail time," writes Nye. "However the imposition of a guilty verdict and subsequent fine is a moot consideration when offenders do not appear for their scheduled court hearing."

The proposed amendment to the law would make panhandling punishable by a $2,500 fine or up to a year in jail. It would also allow officers to recommend violators be jailed prior to their day in court if the officers can convince a judge that the offender would either not show up for court or continue to engage in illegal panhandling. 

Nye says that it is difficult to determine the fiscal impact of the proposal. A court appointed lawyer, which a homeless defendant would almost certainly be eligible for, costs the city $120 a day. Jailtime for violators costs $59 a day. 

"It is expected that there will be an initial increased expense for for incarceration of repeat offenders," writes Nye. "But it is also expected that the incidence of repeat offenders will be significantly reduced after the amended ordinance has been in effect for several months."

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