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Committee considers panhandling restrictions

By J.R. Williams -- jrwilliams@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Proposed additions to city code presented to City Council members Tuesday night would strengthen police authority over panhandlers and public vagrancy.

A letter Winchester Police Chief Kevin Sanzenbacher presented to the community safety and public services committee on Tuesday night cites "special concern" for the safety of "people being accosted on the downtown mall and solicitors entering the roadways and accosting motorists in an aggressive manner."

A violation of the ordinance would be considered a class 2 misdemeanor, which could mean jail time and fines for offenders.

The restrictions on panhandling evolved from discussion on how best to put pressure on solicitors often seen working busy city streets.

Officers had been using an ordinance that prohibits pedestrians in a roadway, Sanzenbacher said, which authorities felt was too vague and didn't completely deter the solicitors.

"We got a call this evening that panhandlers are back in the Pleasant Valley area," he told the committee Tuesday night.

Mayor Elizabeth Minor called panhandling "a problem for quite some time" and the ordinance "something we need to get in place."

At least recently, reports of aggressive panhandlers have been scarce, Sanzenbacher said. But authorities wanted to "kill two birds with one stone," he said.

"We're looking for people who are stopping people and asking for money," he said.

Sanzenbacher said offenders likely first would be given a warning, with arrests possible "if they become annoying and are being bothersome."

Performing musicians likely wouldn't be targeted, he said. He did not say whether the presence of someone who appeared to be begging would constitute a violation of the ordinance.

Fran Ricketts, president of the Congregational Community Action Project and an advocate for the homeless, said panhandlers should be allowed to ask for money as long as they are not aggressive.

"I see nothing wrong with that, seeing if someone wants to give," she said. "And if they don't they can just walk on by.

"Where is the safety in living in a box or a tent?"

Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to forward the ordinance to the full panel for approval at its next meeting.

A second ordinance aims to eliminate public urination, something city code does not currently expressly prohibit.

Officers have been arresting people based on an indecent exposure charge, which requires officers to see the "offending part," Sanzenbacher said.

The new ordinance would better allow officers to prosecute offenders, he said.

The new ordinances come only several days after the city's commonwealth's attorney's office filed orders of interdiction against "habitual drunkards," which effectively could bar several people from purchasing alcohol in the city.

Each person named in the legal petitions went to the Division of Court Services' Starting Point Public Inebriate Center on South Cameron Street for being drunk in public.

Those petitions are scheduled to be heard by a judge Oct. 22.

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