MORGANTOWN — Everybody is in agreement. Panhandling is a problem and something needs to be done.
What is that something?
That was the focus of a Thursday work session between the county, Morgantown, Star City, Granville and Westover as well as representatives of their respective law enforcement agencies.
“What I’m trying to do is say can we come together with something to go back to each of our governing bodies and say, ‘This has a possibility of working,’” Monongalia County Commission President Tom Bloom said.
What’s going back to those respective bodies is a variation on an ordinance enacted by Henrico County, Va.
The panhandling issue isn’t new to Morgantown, Monongalia County, Henrico County or anywhere else, but it’s difficult for a couple primary reasons.
One, such laws — even those conceived in the name of public safety — have to navigate a very fine line, constitutionally speaking
A simple Google search produces a long list of rulings from courts at various levels and jurisdictions striking down such ordinances on the grounds that asking for money is protected free speech.
In fact, the Henrico County ordinance being studied is actually a second version that came about after Henrico County was sued and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit got involved.
“Could someone take us to court? They could take us to court for anything we do, but I think we’re safer in numbers when we say, ‘Look what we’re able to do. We’re trying to educate the public. We’re trying to offer the services.’ I think that’s the key. It isn’t that we aren’t giving them opportunities. We have those services,” Bloom said.
“We’re all trying to help the vulnerable populations and we have all these services to offer, but we can’t keep enabling this.”
The second major issue when it comes to a panhandling ordinance is enforcement.
Does it make any sense to issue fines or demand community service from someone who is begging for money?
And what do you do when the fines go unpaid and nobody shows up for community service?
Westover Police Chief Joe Adams said that unless jail time is an option for repeat offenders, the whole effort is in vain.
“You can’t mandate anything without jail time. You can dance around it all you want, but you’ve got to have jail time or it’s a paper tiger. It doesn’t mean anything,” Adams said, adding “Without the option of jail time there is no enforcement. It’s a joke. They’re going to tear the ticket up and throw it at you.”