Drafting new laws to limit panhandling is proving to be a challenge for Durango.
The city stopped enforcing a law that prohibited loitering for purposes of begging last fall after it received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union saying that type of solicitation is protected as a form of free speech.
But since the Durango Police Department stopped enforcing the law, police, nonprofit leaders and business owners have noticed far more people panhandling. The city is working to write new laws, but they must strike the right balance between the First Amendment rights of panhandlers to peacefully ask for donations and concerns about safety, said City Attorney Dirk Nelson in April.
One potential law would limit aggressive panhandling, and the other would prevent anyone from standing in the median. The laws were scheduled to be adopted in May, but Nelson still is working on revising the draft ordinances, and they will not likely see votes until June.
“It’s too tough an issue to rush through,” said Councilor Dick White in an interview.
The aggressive panhandling law has not yet been drafted, but it could prohibit panhandlers from harassing, following, touching residents or blocking someone’s path, Nelson said.
It also may prohibit panhandlers from begging in areas where residents would be captive to their solicitations, he said.
The law may need to be revisited based on how the U.S. Supreme Court responds to a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a man in Massachusetts.
“The legal landscape is fuzzy,” White said.
The median law also needs to be revised. The law initially was written to prohibit standing in the median for a long period of time, but this could effectively prevent East Third Avenue residents from lighting luminarias on their median.
A revision could prevent anyone from standing on particularly narrow medians or specifically allow certain activities on medians. City councilors directed staff members to address this issue, but they left the details to the city attorney.
The need for the laws was voiced by many business owners and police who spoke at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
Police Chief Jim Spratlen recounted several stories about aggressive panhandlers who have harassed or followed residents on streets.
“This is unacceptable in our city,” he said.
Police officers are writing tickets when applicable under current law, but they are careful not to violate the freedom of speech, Spratlen said.
“In no way are we ever going to violate anybody’s rights,” he said.
The co-owner of the Ore House Restaurant, Ryan Lowe, said he wants to be compassionate with people who may be homeless for mental-health reasons. But at the same time, he does not want his customers to feel harassed, and many other business owners feel the same.
“There’s a real concern that it’s starting to impact our businesses,” Lowe said.
The councilors will hear more public comment on the laws at 6:30 p.m. May 19 at City Hall, 949 East Second Ave.