Buddy, can you spare a crime?

If you want to beg in Orlando, you need a license. If you don't get one, you go to jail. One year ago Orlando instituted a highly unusual regulation on its beggar population. Since June 26, 1996, anyone desiring to panhandle in the city had to get a permit from the police. The ordinance extended the city's six-year-old prohibition of begging on highways, a policy lauded in the Orlando Sentinel's editorial pages as a "quality of life issue." But it was passed so quietly that the daily paper did not even take notice, at least not right away. Maybe that's because the ordinance is unconstitutional. Today a panhandler must provide a photo identification or be photographed and fingerprinted. A laminated identification card is worn like a badge or shown on request to any cop. (Actually, the fingerprinting isn't always done now, says Rosie Grace, supervisor of the Identification Bureau at the Orlando Police Department, "for our employees' safety.") The ordinance is administered for the convenience of the authorities as well. The licenses are available only from 9 a.m. to noon on Thursdays. Even so, 189 have been issued, while 17 have been revoked for violating the rules, says Grace. The rules are designed to discourage begging anywhere it might actually pan out. The forbidden places include bus stops, train stations, buses, trains, airports, parks, fairgrounds, sporting facilities (including outside the doors), and automatic-teller machines. Without a quarry's consent, panhandlers must stay at least 3 feet away. "That's patently unconstitutional," says Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "You have the right to go to someone on the street and talk to them without a formal license." Blumner notes the U.S. Supreme Court recently let stand a New York decision striking down the licensing of street performers, on whom Orlando has just cracked down ("Church Street Blues," June 12). City prosecutor Ken Hebeart insists the ordinance has been written narrowly enough to pass constitutional muster. No one has yet challenged it in court. But a number of homeless types have been ignoring it. They are cited again and again, each time spending a night or two in jail, before being convicted and sent home. Todd Phillips, for instance, "had 31 of those (panhandling cases) in a period of a couple of years," Hebeart says. A check of Phillips' court record shows 75 arrests in the past year -- only one for a panhandlers violation. Most were for "camping," another broadly defined city ordinance that takes aim at the homeless. So how effective is the law? Sgt. Deborah Beaver says the ordinance may have decreased panhandling, especially aggressive panhandling. It's hard to say, she says, because the ordinance took effect just as the city shut down the Lamar Hotel, a home for day-laborers and others down on their luck. That sent an influx of panhandlers into the streets. To enforce the ordinance, Beavers occasionally assigns two officers to undercover sting operations. "They will dress in civilian clothes and be the 'victim,' if you will," she says. A Feb. 7 sting netted 11 panhandlers. Strict law enforcement makes Orlando the "City Beautiful" it is. But Beavers says she's noticed another trend. "Panhandlers are getting more aggressive with us.They have been known to fight us because they don't want to go to jail." Anyone preferring a court fight should call Blumner at (305) 576-2336 or write to the ACLU, 3000 Biscayne Bvd., Miami, 33137. Sidebar: Oppression on Church Street Stephen Renda makes his living circulating petitions all over America. Armed with a slew of legal rulings and the belief he has a right to be there, Renda sets up shop wherever the foot traffic figures to be most brisk. Since arriving in Orlando, Renda has experienced the intolerant nature of the proprietors of the Church Street Market, the same festive shopping establishment that banishes street performers ("Church Street Blues," June 12). On May 31, he was issued a trespass warning after setting up at the market. "Even though it's private property, when they open up to the general public, they create a public square," says Renda, who carries three sheets listing court rulings in support of his position. Presented with the rulings, Renda says the officer replied, "This is what the Orlando Police Department says about it," and handed over the warning. Police issue warnings to petitioners only when called by a property owner, Sgt. Bill Mulloy says. The owner, Lincoln Properties, has declined repeated requests to explain its policy. In squelching the circulation of petitions, Church Street could be compromising Central Floridians' opportunity to participate in the democratic process. "Here, most people's view of voting is different," Renda says. "They don't know what they can do."
Scroll to read more Orlando Area News articles


Join Orlando Weekly Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.