City officials helpless to stop panhandlers on public rights of way

Published 6:08 pm Monday, September 10, 2018

The city of Vicksburg cannot prevent people from panhandling and soliciting money on public rights of way, according to a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union to Mayor George Flaggs Jr.

Flaggs released the letter “because I wanted to make it clear to the public that the ordinances on the books for the city are no good any more. They’re unconstitutional, based on a (U.S.) Fifth Circuit Court ruling, and we’re going to have to take them off the books.”

People panhandling in the city, especially in the downtown area, has been a problem for local merchants, who have complained to city officials. But according to the ACLU’s letter, a series of court cases have found panhandling and begging laws unconstitutional because they violate the free speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

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A recent case is the Fifth Circuit decision in Blitch vs. City of Slidell (LA.).

In that case, the court said the city’s panhandling ordinance was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment rights of people asking for money anywhere within the Slidell city limits.

The city’s code of ordinances contains two ordinances concerning begging and soliciting on city sidewalks and streets. Both are unconstitutional according to the previous court rulings.

One prohibits anyone older than “16 years of age and not blind” from going “about from place to place begging and asking subsistence by charity.”

The other makes it “unlawful to use any part of streets or public rights-of-way of the city including, but not limited to, sidewalks and medians for any type of solicitation except with the prior consent of the board of mayor and aldermen, which consent must be on file with the city police department prior to the date the solicitation is allowed.”

Flaggs said Vicksburg is not enforcing its panhandling and begging laws “and the public needs to know that,” adding he had received a letter from a lady with a business complaining about panhandlers.

“We can’t interfere with them,” he said

“There’s nothing we can do unless the panhandlers harasses someone, and then whoever the panhandler harassed would have to be the one to file the charges,” he said.

“If they go in the building, that would be something different; that would trespassing, but again, they would have to file the charges.

“As far as panhandling, we’ve got to take those laws off the books,” he said.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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