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Grand Island weighs law to rein in 'aggressive' panhandling

The Town of Grand Island may ban aggressive begging in response to complaints about panhandling in two of the island's largest shopping plazas.

The Town Board is considering a law that prohibits overly zealous panhandling and also sets limits on where panhandling of any kind can take place. A public hearing is set for Monday night's board meeting.

The proposed law bars begging in a way that seems threatening and doesn't allow panhandling near an ATM, for example, or at a bus stop. It's intended to rein in panhandling on the island without violating the public's constitutional right to ask for money.

"It's First Amendment rights," Grand Island Supervisor John Whitney said. "You can't exclude it, but there are things that you can do to limit it. And that's what we're trying to achieve."

The proposed law is a response to concerns raised by shoppers and business owners at the Tops Market and Grand Island plazas, where a small number of people have approached patrons in the parking lots in recent months.

The Town Board discussed the problem at a work session in December. The town has tried to take a lighter touch in addressing the concerns, with officials saying they recognize the financial, mental health and addiction issues that panhandlers may deal with.

No one has reported a serious threat, town officials say, but they want shoppers to feel comfortable and they encourage anyone who feels harassed to call the police.

Private businesses can ban soliciting on their properties but the town doesn't have a panhandling law. Panhandlers could be cited for violating laws against harassment or disorderly conduct.

Communities in New York and across the country have approved panhandling laws, but courts have struck down some of them as unconstitutional. Federal courts have ruled the right to free speech includes asking someone else for money.

The City of Rochester passed a law banning "aggressive" panhandling that was upheld following a legal challenge. Towns and cities, including Niagara Falls and others in this region, have modeled their panhandling laws on the Rochester ordinance.

Buffalo's law took effect about a dozen years ago.

"It's complaint-driven. We obviously don't have a task force out there looking for panhandlers," said Capt. Jeff Rinaldo, a Buffalo Police Department spokesman.

Generally, the city's panhandlers aren't overly aggressive and politely move on if someone turns down a request for money, he said.

But it's a quality-of-life issue, Rinaldo said, and the department will respond when and if panhandlers are blocking the sidewalk, for example, or not taking no for an answer. It's up to the officer's discretion whether to ticket the panhandler for a violation.

Grand Island's proposed law bars panhandlers from making physical contact or coming within arm's length of the people they're asking for money; following them in a way that's meant to intimidate; blocking people, or the vehicle they're driving, to keep them from freely passing by; and threatening them by word or action.

This prohibition on aggressive panhandling applies to all parking lots as well as parks, schools and other public properties.

"Aggressive acts" can scare customers away from businesses, potentially hurting the island's economy, and any soliciting outside ATMs and certain other locations is "inherently intimidating" and an "invasion of privacy" for this captive audience, the law's authors wrote.

All panhandling is barred within 20 feet of the entrance to a bank or check-cashing storefront or at a bus stop. It also bans standing on the sidewalk or along the road and asking passing drivers for money.

"You can't go into stores and panhandle. You can't approach people and in any aggressive manner to panhandle," Whitney said. "You can't panhandle within so many feet of an ATM or the entrance to a facility that houses an ATM."

Breaking this law is classified as a violation and is punishable by a fine of up to $250. A second conviction within a year could bring a 15-day jail sentence.

“This law will only compound the issues facing those who must panhandle," John A. Curr III, director of the local office of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in an email. "Adequately addressing this issue cannot be done through further criminalization, only increased in investments in supports that uplift people."

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