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Proposal would criminalize panhandling throughout much of downtown, likely faces legal challenge

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Posted at 3:33 PM, Feb 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-28 15:39:03-05

INDIANAPOLIS — An amendment made to an Indiana criminal justice bill Thursday that would crack down on panhandling in the state is likely to face legal challenges.

The amendment, which is now included in SB 335, would make it illegal to panhandle within 50 feet of a parking meter, parking garage, ATM, restaurant entrances and public monuments. The amendment was approved by consent, meaning all lawmakers agreed, in the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee.

Ken Falk, the legal director of ACLU of Indiana, said the amendment is “clearly unconstitutional, in addition to being cruel and insincere.”

“It’s insincere because its masking as some sort of regulation but it’s actually a complete prohibition, given how broad it applies to prohibit panhandling within 50 feet of parking meters,” Falk said. “It basically means people are not able to engage in an activity which the courts have recognized as protected by the first amendment in the downtown area of Indianapolis.”

The language in the amendment, specifically the 50-foot part, was modeled after a law in San Antonio. San Antonio changed its law in 2011 to prohibit panhandling within 50 feet of ATMs, banks, parking garages and more.

Representatives from the Indy Chamber, Visit Indy, Hilton Indianapolis and Downtown Indy all spoke in support of the amendment in the hearing Thursday.

“We’re talking about the person who is more forceful in demanding money,” said Indy Chamber general counsel Tim Brown. “Individuals who are requesting, threatening, following our co-workers home at night to their cars blocks away in a very aggressive manner. Intimidating in the instance of asking for money.”

Chris Gahl with Visit Indy said homelessness and panhandling is the No. 1 complaint for conventions when they leave or choose other cities.

Hilton Indianapolis General Manager Joe Melton said the law would be a matter of safety for tourists and downtown Indianapolis patrons.

“When you walk out of a restaurant and there’s someone right in front of you,” he said. “When you turn around from an ATM machine and there’s somebody there saying, ‘Hey, I need money. Help me.’ and you haven’t put your wallet away. I think about how those folks are vulnerable.”

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, questioned the constitutionality of the amendment. Those who support it said San Antonio’s law was upheld in court challenges. But a new case has been decided since 2011 that could overturn Indiana’s law. The 2015 case was used to strike down a panhandling ban in Springfield, Ill.

“This is an attempt to drive people away from engaging in this activity in which we don’t like,” Falk said. “One of the things the First Amendment has stood for since its inception is that sometimes we, as a society, have to tolerate things we don’t like. This just seems cruel.”