The Centralia City Council on Tuesday approved changes to its regulations regarding solicitation, including panhandling, within the city.
Under the approved changes to city code, it is unlawful for a person to solicit a vehicle or person along a road without a sidewalk, but it is allowed from a sidewalk as long as it is not directed toward traffic.
An additional change makes it illegal to solicit drivers while they are at a stoplight or while vehicles are moving.
Previously, panhandling and other solicitation was banned on a long list of streets and intersections, as the result of a 2014 vote by the city council.
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City Attorney Shannon Murphy-Olson said she believed that law was too broad in limiting solicitation, which is protected under the First Amendment.
“I had a real discomfort with that section and felt it was time to change it,” she said.
However, cities can regulate the time, place and manner in which solicitation takes place on public property.
Murphy-Olson said the changes are in line with what courts have ruled in regards to how other cities across the country have regulated the activity.
“Courts have really tied the hands of police forces and municipalities,” Councilor Peter Abbarno said.
The chapter in the code making it against the law to solicit drivers in vehicles while they are driving or stopped at a stoplight means a pedestrian can’t approach a vehicle that is not legally parked to solicit for money or anything else.
“I think this is another good piece of legislation,” Abbarno said. “It is about public safety.”
Exceptions to the new code are first responders and public works crews performing their duties, signaling an emergency, or getting in a taxi or ridesharing service such as Lyft or Uber.
Coercive solicitation is still illegal under city law, Murphy-Olson said. Coercive solicitation is defined as making a reasonable person feel threatened, demanding a person give in to the solicitation, blocking the path of people after they have given a negative response, or making any false claims.
The reason the 2014 ordinance was adopted was to people from unwanted solicitation and panhandling when they were at an ATM, exiting or entering a vehicle, or standing at a bus stop, gas pump or any place where they would not normally be surrounded by other people, Murphy-Olson said.
Those methods of solicitation are still illegal under the altered city code.
The penalties also changed on Tuesday for people who are caught breaking the new rules.
Instead of being fined from the start, the violator will be issued a verbal warning. Murphy-Olson said she suggested this change so the law won’t immediately impose monetary fines on people who do not have a source of income.
Councilor Ron Greenwood asked if community service could be added to the written penalties.
Murphy-Olson said imposing community service was in the court’s discretion and could be substituted if a judge wished to do so.
Abbarno said he believes more service opportunities will become available in the future as more partnerships form between groups combating homelessness.
After a warning, the first offense would be considered a civil infraction that could result in a fine of no more than $250. A second offense would be considered a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail. A third and subsequent offense can cost an offender up to $5,000 and 64 days in jail.
The council voted unanimously on the changes.
The Chehalis City Council passed an ordinance similar to Centralia’s 2014 law in 2015, but its version was smaller in scope and focused largely on the roads through the Twin City Town Center and surrounding retail zones.
The American Civil Liberties Union has pressured other city governments across the country with similar laws to make changes for years.
“Anti-begging laws that punish that most vulnerable segment of our society are not only harsh, they are unconstitutional,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney, in a 2013 press release. “No one should be thrown in jail or subjected to a fine for holding up a sign or simply asking for spare change. In the wake of the appeals court decision, we’re putting these cities and townships on notice that it’s time they repeal their unconstitutional ordinances.”