Is street panhandling legal?

Mark Brooky • Sep 21, 2016 at 5:00 PM

Jeanne of Spring Lake asked, “Who should I contact when I see people soliciting with cardboard signs at the intersection of Jackson and Beacon Boulevard? They hold cardboard signs with handwritten messages such as “need a job,” “father of 3,” etc. Usually, one is on the northeast corner, another on the southeast corner at the same time. Being an older lady, it makes me nervous when having to stop for the long red lights at that intersection.”


You will see them frequently at the corner of Beacon and Robbins Road, too. Is it legal?

Grand Haven Public Safety Director Jeff Hawke explained to me that, yes, it is legal to panhandle. However, there are restrictions.

“In 2013, a federal appeals court found that statutes and ordinances identifying panhandlers as disorderly persons were unconstitutional and that panhandling laws should focus on specific behaviors rather than generalities,” the police chief said. “This means that peaceful or passive panhandling is legal. An example of peaceful or passive panhandling is someone holding a sign asking for money, food, a job, etc.”

Most municipalities in Michigan have revamped their ordinances to be in line with the court decision. Most ordinances are now very similar, Hawke said.

Take, for instance, the Grand Haven city ordinance that covers dangerous, offensive and misleading solicitation (Section 24-58). Here are the factors associated with solicitation that are prohibited by that ordinance:

— On private property without permission of the owner.

— Within 15 feet of the entrance to any public restroom or building, or ATM.

— Within any public transportation vehicle (Harbor Transit bus, taxi, etc.)

— From any operator of a motor vehicle that is in traffic on a public street.

— From any person waiting in line for entry to any building.

“The most common violation in this section is entering the street to accept money from the operator of a vehicle,” Hawke said. “This is dangerous and puts the solicitor and others at risk of a traffic accident.”

The Grand Haven ordinance also prohibits panhandlers from “accosting” another person or “forcing oneself upon the company of another,” Hawke said. This means approaching someone in a way that would cause fear or refusing to leave someone alone after being asked.

“Misleading” conduct is also prohibited, Hawke said. This means falsely representing some kind of “need,” such as faking a disability, the wearing of a military uniform by someone who is not a present or past member of the military, or claiming homelessness when not really homeless.

Anyone who witnesses a violation of the ordinance should call 911 and report it. An officer will respond and investigate, Hawke said.

“Many panhandlers are fraudulent — some are not,” Hawke said. “We have resources available in the community for persons in need and officers often serve as the first point of contact in these situations. If someone is hungry or homeless, we can provide immediate help. Often times, the homeless person will not accept formal assistance.”

So, should you offer a buck or two to someone at the corner?

“Giving money is a personal choice that should be made using the individual’s best judgment,” Hawke said.

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