City guards its milion-dollar lot

Henry Lewis Coulter is a professional panhandler. To differentiate himself from other panhandlers downtown, Coulter specializes in advising people on how to cut their costs for parking in the city lot under I-4.

While also ready to offer other helpful hints to tourists or other uninitiated patrons of the lot, Coulter thought he had found a comfortable niche: He explained to people confronted with the "master meter" system used in the lot that popping as little as a nickel into the meter will generate a receipt telling them how much time remains on the spot that their car is occupying.

"I'm more apt to get a donation when I'm being helpful. I'm going to save you money first," says Coulter, adding, "I don't agree with what the city's doing, not telling people."

In 1997, for the first time, the city broke the $1 million mark in collections from the parking lot underneath I-4 frequented by tourists visiting Church Street Station and other downtown attractions, as well as locals visiting the federal court and other government offices in the vicinity. The master meters clearly explain how to pay 75 cents an hour, but nowhere mention the money-saving method advocated by Coulter.

Like any entrepreneur, Coulter knows the law underlying his vocation. "I'm a stickler for the rules," says Coulter, who faithfully wears his panhandler's badge when he's on the job and can quote the ordinance practically verbatim.

Yet Coulter has been charged with violating the newest section of the city's panhandling ordinance, which prohibits soliciting money in a parking lot or garage owned or operated by the City of Orlando, including entryways or exits and pay stations connected herewith.

In fact, Coulter had become such a nuisance that two Orlando police officers worked together -- one using binoculars from the roof of Church Street Exchange -- to arrest Coulter on Dec. 14, 1997 -- four days after advising Coulter of the amendment, which had taken effect that day.

In addition to panhandling on the city lot, Coulter was charged with misrepresenting himself and falsely stating that he could "adjust or eliminate the parking fee amount." (Coulter has been in jail since Dec. 26, when he was arrested for robbery.)

On Monday, the panhandling case was continued to March 23. And prosecutors are expected to drop all but the charge accusing Coulter of violating the prohibition on panhandling on city parking lots.

Coulter and his attorney suspect the city tightened the panhandling ordinance in part to protect this considerable revenue stream. But City Prosecutor Ken Hebert says the ordinance was amended in December 1997 in response to complaints from women worried about being accosted by panhandlers while digging in their purses for the parking fees.

"They felt being approached there was especially scary," Hebert says. While saying he is sympathetic to the plight of panhandlers like Coulter, Hebert says he is also sympathetic to prohibitions, such as the one under which Coulter is charged, which make it extremely difficult for panhandlers to succeed. After all, before passage of the ordinance in January 1996, panhandling was illegal anywhere in Orlando. "From a historical standpoint, it's better than it was," Hebert says.

Regardless, on behalf of Coulter, Assistant Public Defender Cindy Schmidt plans to mount technical and constitutional attacks on the ordinance. While the city can restrict panhandling, it must show that the need to protect people from panhandlers outweighs any compromises of citizens' civil rights -- even of homeless panhandlers. "The First Amendment protects everybody," Schmidt says.

Today, panhandlers like Coulter are stigmatized by society. "What's right is not always popular and what's popular's not always right," Schmidt says, while listing three famous beggars: St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi and Jesus. " `Coulter's` in good company."

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