In an effort to keep panhandlers and their contributors safe, Centennial City Council on Sept. 3 approved an ordinance to limit where their transactions can occur.
“We have yet to have a significant accident, but it's only a matter of time,” said Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office Bureau Chief Vince Line. “It is a significant public safety issue.”
While panhandling itself is still legal, those conducting such business must now stay away from state highways, off all medians and out of the street. They also must position themselves so that drivers who would like to give them money can safely pull into a parking lot to do so.
Deputy City Attorney Maureen Juran told council the law mirrors ones in place in some surrounding communities and takes care not to tread on anyone's right to free speech.
“We believe this does pass First Amendment constitutional muster,” she said.
In Centennial, panhandling has been on the rise, particularly at intersections along the Interstate 25 corridor, notably County Line Road, Dry Creek Road and Yosemite Street — likely an unintended consequence of light rail, noted Councilmember Rebecca McClellan.
“Because we're surrounded by municipalities that are doing something about this, we're getting the overflow,” she said. “I feel like we do need to do something.”
Councilor Rick Dindinger voted against the ordinance, saying the requirement that a driver must be able to pull into a parking lot goes too far.
“There are times when it can be done safely from the car,” he said.
Councilmember Keith Gardner joined Dindinger's opposition, wondering how it would affect the firefighters' “Fill the Boot” event each Labor Day weekend. Juran said details will be worked out with the fire department to ensure the fund-raiser for muscular dystrophy would continue.
Gardner also asked if the new law will inhibit the ability of political candidates to campaign and gather signatures on nominating petitions at major intersections.
“You very well might be prosecuted for that, but I don't know how a judge might ultimately rule,” said Juran.
Violations of the ordinance are considered minor, so no jail time would be ordered. City code allows a fine of up to $2,650.
Line said he didn't expect to proactively enforce the law.
“This gives us a tool to utilize if we need it,” he said. “We would probably talk to people first before hauling them into court. But some circumstances would dictate enforcement over education.”