“Aggressive” Panhandling Targeted by Undercover Officers

That’s what officers from the Austin Police Department are calling certain tactics they say are being used by panhandlers in the downtown area. So early this year, the APD began an undercover operation to deal with the problem. Now, according to the downtown commander, the efforts are being stepped up.

Police say that aggressive panhandling involves more than simply asking passersby for money or spare change. It includes abusive behavior such as swearing and other tactics supposedly designed to intimidate the other person. In addition to city ordinances relating to the time, place and manner of solicitations for money, police say that some of the aggressive cases involve assault and other crimes.

The undercover program has been a major factor in the increase in arrests this year. So far in 2013, there have been over 900 people arrested for aggressive solicitation. In all of 2012, there were only about 350 such arrests.

In Texas and across the country, numerous blanket prohibitions on panhandling have been ruled unconstitutional over the years. Recent examples of laws that have been struck down include

  • An Arizona statute that made it a crime to beg for food or money in a public place.
  • A Slidell, Louisiana ordinance banning panhandling.
  • Utah’s anti-panhandling law, which a federal judge said was so broad it could prohibit children from selling lemonade in front of their homes.
  • A Michigan law that says if you are begging in a public place you are considered a disorderly person, and can be arrested.
  • A blanket ban on solicitation in a “no solicitation zone” under an ordinance in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

As the result of these decisions, many states, as well as municipalities including Austin, have enacted laws that appear to focus on prohibiting “aggressive” solicitation. This shifts the nature of the offense from the request for money, which has in many cases been deemed constitutionally protected speech, to the manner in which it is done.

We’ll be interested in seeing whether there are any new challenges to the revised versions of the anti-panhandling ordinances.