Like a criminal

On a cold Friday morning I strap on my guitar case and walk down the not-so-busy streets of downtown Orlando, settling on a vacant spot in front of what used to be Scruffy Murphy's, now a boarded-up, desolate building at the intersection of Orange Avenue and Washington Street. I take out my guitar and lay its soft case in front of me on the sidewalk. I'm not much of a guitar player, but that's beside the point.

The point is to figure out if busking is illegal. It's a question that's left me spinning in bureaucratic circles, bouncing between city and Orange County offices, paying for licenses that may or may not mean anything, hunting in vain for the one line in dense municipal and county codes that might shed light on my situation. And it's an answer Vincent Tarazavich has sought for years.

"Every time I go out there to play my guitar and sing, I'm threatened by county and city police with panhandling and solicitation charges and I'm told to go to a blue box," Tarazavich says, referring to the scattered downtown zones the city designates with blue paint lines for beggars. For three years, Tarazavich has been a street performer. But he says whenever he plays his brand of Jesus-praising, bluesy acoustic music, he gets hassled by the cops, who tell him that if he doesn't get inside a panhandling box, he'll be arrested for solicitation.

There are two problems with that. One, Tarazavich says he never asks for money — if people want to throw a dollar in his guitar case, that's their decision. Two, Tarazavich is one of the 22 people who in the past year shelled out $35 plus tax to get an Orange County entertainer's license. When he asks city and county officials to show him the laws in writing, he gets the runaround.

It's true the city hasn't been especially kind to the homeless and downtrodden of late. Consider the law it passed in 2006 to forbid a group from feeding homeless people in a public park, which a federal court ruled unconstitutional — or even the blue panhandling boxes themselves, which the city approved in 2000. Last year, the city amended its code to shut down those blue boxes at 7 p.m., so panhandlers couldn't harass the downtown's evening bar-hoppers.

But Tarazavich doesn't consider himself a beggar; he's a licensed performer. So why should he be treated the same? The law is ambiguous. Since there's nothing in either the Orlando or Orange County codes that deals directly with busking, I wondered if I could get a straight answer. Like Tarazavich, I plopped down $35 to get my entertainer's license. Then I set up shop at the intersection of Orange and Washington, a block from the downtown police station, and waited.

Two bicycle cops pass by me. The first told me I have "a lot of talent." The second pulls up and announces, "You can't be there. You're blocking the flow of traffic."

I move my gear closer to the wall, away from the sidewalk. He asks me for my permit, so I show him my county license. He tells me I should relocate to a blue box, because he thinks my open case is a sign of solicitation. I reply that I have a license. "Irregardless, you should still leave, but I won't harass you," he says, then pedals off.

I pack up and walk to City Hall. And sure enough, just a few minutes later an OPD officer threatens to arrest me for panhandling, license or no license.

That wasn't unexpected. After I'd purchased my entertainer's license, I'd spent a day on the phone with city and county pencil-pushers. No one was sure of anything, but it became clear that the entertainer's license isn't worth the paper it's printed on. To play on county streets, I could buy a companion $30 solicitor's license. But the city doesn't recognize that license, which means busking is illegal in Orlando outside those blue boxes (and after 7 p.m.).

But playing guitar is also a form of free expression — and if some preacher can stand on the street telling clubgoers via megaphone they're going to hell, I should at least be able to play a G chord without fear of being thrown in the pokey. And I can — as long as my guitar case is closed. The city's policy, at least as interpreted by the cop who almost arrested me, is this: If your case is open, you're soliciting, whether you're taking in money or not.

Maria Kayanan, associate legal director of the ACLU of Florida, says buskers aren't "traditional panhandlers." "The city cannot interpret the panhandling ordinance to prohibit street musicians in downtown Orlando without providing any alternative channels for protected speech," she says in an e-mail interview. In 2005, the ACLU helped strike down a Miami Beach ordinance that made it unlawful for anyone to perform on public property without a permit. In 2007, Miami Beach passed another ordinance designating areas where street entertainers can perform. The ACLU has sued again.

"I don't want to get arrested over this, but I will if it means getting my rights back," Tarazavich says.

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