By MATTHEW BIENIEK
CUMBERLAND, Md. (AP) — Sheriff Craig Robertson hopes an amendment to state law will help police tackle the panhandling problem in the area. Robertson is asking Allegany County commissioners to get behind a request to the local delegation to take action.
“Most people are expressing concern over whether these people are really in need or they’re doing this as their job,” said Robertson at a commission work session Tuesday. Robertson said he’s not trying to take away anyone’s First Amendment rights.
People in the county are becoming increasingly concerned by a growing number of panhandlers asking for money, especially in the LaVale area. The main concentration of the panhandlers has been in the LaVale area between Country Club Mall and Braddock Square. The panhandlers also seem to be active on nearby National Highway. The sheriff and his deputies have heard concerns from a large number of citizens, he said.
“It’s a safety issue when it comes to the roadway,” the sheriff said. Motorists may look over at the panhandlers and their signs, causing traffic safety issues and occasionally, panhandlers may block the road. A state law that may help out is already on the books, but doesn’t apply to Allegany County, Robertson said.
A member of Maryland’s Attorney General’s Office said state law is essentially the only way to go to control panhandling.
In a Dec. 12 letter, Assistant Attorney General Sandra Benson Brantley said that state law would prevent Allegany County from passing a local law against panhandling.
“The authority of a local government in Maryland to enact laws regulating roadside solicitations in and around roadways is limited in two ways. First, state law explicitly regulates solicitation in roadways, and thus preempts any local regulation on the issue. Second, any government regulation of solicitation will trigger scrutiny to determine whether the regulation violates free speech rights under the First Amendment,” Brantley said.
The trouble is, though, that the state law is missing something.
The state law prohibits soliciting a ride, employment or business, but says nothing about donations. The attorney general, though, has said the law should be broadly construed to include donations. The attorney general’s office is reviewing that issue right now, Brantley said.
Brantley also suggested an amendment to another existing law could add Allegany County to a list of counties prohibiting solicitation of donations in similar situations, Brantley said.
That’s the law Robertson is interested in changing to include Allegany County.
The letter came in response to a request from Delegate Kevin Kelly asking the attorney general’s office for advice on panhandling after constituent complaints about aggressive panhandling in the area. Kelly said he also heard similar concerns at the delegation’s recent meeting with the Chamber of Commerce.
County Attorney William Rudd added a note of caution to the discussion. He was concerned applying the law could ban boot drives and similar charitable solicitations. He said there was a way around that problem through a county permit process to allow solicitations by nonprofits.
Robertson said there was already such a process in place for door-to-door solicitations.
Such a county law would have to be carefully worded and non-discriminatory, Rudd said. The county could not pick and choose which charities or related organizations would have a right to apply for a permit to solicit donations.
“You have to be careful you’re not violating someone’s right to free speech,” Rudd said, which could be interpreted as harassment.
“We should also have Mr. (Michael) Twigg’s Office on board with it,’ Rudd said. Twigg is the state’s attorney. The state’s attorney’s office would prosecute charges against panhandlers. In many areas, Rudd said, prosecutors have decided not to pursue such charges.
In addition, if the panhandlers are on private property, deputies could not charge them without a complaint by the property owner.
Information from: Cumberland (Md.) Times-News, http://www.times-news.com/timesnew.html
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)