If the economy gets worse, Oklahoma City and other metropolitan areas could be dealing with more people down on their luck taking up panhandling for spare change. Oklahoma City banned panhandling until 2005, when a new ordinance was passed. People could not stand on the roadsides holding cardboard pleas. And beggars couldn’t approach people on the sidewalk asking for change. "‘Brother, can you spare a dime,’ is freedom of speech,” Oklahoma City police Capt. Steve McCool said. "It’s a first amendment issue.” Logic behind the law The old ordinance stopped being enforced in the mid 1990s when local officials learned it was most likely unconstitutional. They found that although they could not outlaw panhandling, they could write an ordinance that pertained to what police call "aggressive panhandling,” which weighs public safety against free speech. The same rationale that people don’t have the right to yell "Fire!” in a crowded theater is the same reason Oklahoma City can put time, place and manner restrictions on panhandling, McCool said. Aggressive panhandling, a misdemeanor, is a jailable offense, McCool said, but the biggest problem police have is that they can’t make an arrest unless panhandling happens in the officer’s presence. If the officer is not present, it takes a citizen signing a complaint, McCool explained. "And what you find out, in most of these cases, is that the citizen does not want to get involved to that extent,” he said. "They’ll call 911. They want the officer to respond. They want to make the individual go away. But to the point of having to come to court and having to testify, maybe that’s not necessarily something they want to get involved with.”
‘We’d have nothing’Since March 2005, city police have written 158 tickets for aggressive panhandling. And while some may question the logic of assessing a fine against people who apparently don’t have money to pay it, McCool said the panhandling ordinance is still a useful tool that allows police to respond to complaints. "Without this ordinance, we’d have nothing,” he said. And when an accused panhandler doesn’t show up to court or pay his or her fine, that person can be arrested on failure to appear charges the next time police get a complaint.
Panhandling lawAccording to Oklahoma City’s current ordinance, which went into effect in February 2005, panhandlers cannot: →Touch anyone when asking for money. →Continue asking after being told no. →Intimidate anyone. →Block someone’s path. →Use threats of violence or threatening gestures. →Follow someone while panhandling. →Yell or shout. →Solicit within 20 feet of an ATM, bus stop, outdoor restaurant seating, public phone or public restroom. →Solicit after dark.
Cases from March 2005 to Sept. 30, 2008: 158: Tickets written 113: Cases filed by prosecutors 5: Pleas or guilty verdicts in court 69: No-contest pleas in court 6: Cases dismissed $292: Average assessment per case 80: Number of cases disposed 33: Number of cases still pending court action $200, plus court costs and/or 30 days in jail: Maximum fine possible