Panhandlers illegal now at Safeway lot access? Police ask city attorney

       It's clear that Colorado Springs City Council passed a pair of “no-solicitation” ordinances Nov. 27.
       What's still murky are certain legal interpretations, according to Pat Rigdon, commander of the Police Department's Gold Hill substation.
       Particularly affecting the Westside is the statute that makes it illegal for panhandlers in the city to approach vehicles on any U.S. highway. When the law applied only to interstates, it was “one of our most enforced ordinances,” Rigdon said.
       At the council meeting, City Attorney Chris Melcher said that Colorado Avenue west of 31st Street is now covered by the highways law because it is U.S. Business 24.
       But Rigdon said he has sent a question to the attorney about what that means for cars going in and out of shopping center driveways, such as at the Red Rock Safeway. If that driveway, for example, is now seen as an “entrance to or exit from the highway” (a quote from the highways ordinance) then Rigdon believes he will have more enforcement leverage than before.
       “That's been a loophole,” he said. “The guys at Safeway stand on the public sidewalk. And that's been our biggest complaint [from citizens].”
       Rigdon expressed less concern about another apparent highways ordinance loophole. That's the wording declaring that passively holding up signs requesting money on highways is not actually “soliciting.” Asked by Council-member Lisa Czelatdko if this wasn't “a little contradictory,” Melcher said it would be unconstitutional “if you try to ban all passive solicitation citywide.” How-ever, as Rigdon sees it, once a panhandler comes up to get money from a car he's no longer being “passive.”
       Asked for an objective legal opinion on this specific part of the ordinance, Westside attorney Steve Bailey (of Zaughan and DeMuro) said after the meeting that the new wording may not be as helpful to the police as before. “Before it was vague, but potentially more restrictive,” he said. “Now it's clear that passive soliciting is permitted.”
       Overall, Rigdon emphasized that police want to enforce the law accurately. “That's why, when we see gray areas with the document, we want to get guidance from the city attorney,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is violate people's civil rights.”
       The other no-solicitation ordinance that council passed Nov. 27 created a downtown zone where even passive panhandling is now banned. Because so many people have been begging in this manner, downtown merchants have identified it as a problem that's keeping shoppers away.
       There has been some blowback to council's action. The ACLU has decided to sue, and several people contacted councilmembers afterward to complain that the downtown law is too restrictive because it doesn't allow Salvation Army bell-ringers on public property anymore.
       Both no-solicitation ordinances, which had initially passed on first reading Nov. 13, are scheduled to take effect Dec. 2, Rigdon said. Mayor Steve Bach has also given his support. And, Melcher has insisted that the “content-neutral” wording of the downtown zone - banning solicitation of any kind, not just panhandling - will allow it to hold up in court.
       A continuing irritation for the Westside, according to comments from several civic leaders at past meetings, is that the harsher downtown law will cause panhandlers to flee to outlying areas, such as the Westside.
       Asked if this has been an issue yet, Dave Van Ness, coordinator of the Old Colorado City Associates (OCCA) business group, said he does not believe so. But he is hopeful about another part of the new law: a prohibition on soliciting within 20 feet of a doorway (it used to be 6 feet). With most store entrances in Old Town close together and next to the sidewalk, “there is no place along here where they can be 20 feet away,” he said. “It's going to have the effect of no panhandling.”
       Rigdon said police plan to take a measured pace on enforcement. The first two weeks “will be a strictly educational phase,” he said, with pamphlets handed out so that anyone affected by the new laws will understand the changes. In the ensuing two weeks, any violators who were previously talked to will be given warnings. After that time period, police will be ready to start handing out citations, he said.
       The only no vote on council was by Val Snider, on the ordinance setting up the downtown zone. Charging that it had been “jammed through,” he objected to council handling the matter in a speedier manner than the body had planned to do in September. Mayor Steve Bach had requested that it be dealt with in two meetings.

Westside Pioneer article