City of Denver looking to scale back strict panhandling ordinance

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DENVER -- Changes are coming to Denver’s aggressive panhandling ordinance, and it means you could find solicitors in places they weren’t allowed to be before.

For the past several years, certain places in downtown Denver were supposed to be free of panhandlers. Solicitors could not approach you within 20 feet of an ATM, on a restaurant patio, at a bus stop, or after dark. But now, they can.

“And people can walk up to other people and ask for directions,” said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director for the ACLU Colorado. “They can ask ‘do you know where I can get a taxi cab? Could you sign my petition?'

He adds: “To single out requests for charity and say that those threaten public safety, that`s what violates the first amendment.”

Denver Police no longer enforce a portion of the city’s aggressive panhandling ordinance. The Denver City Council is looking at scaling back certain restrictions, after a Federal Court in Grand Junction ruled panhandling is a form of free speech.

“In public places, there are going to be people who say annoying things, who say irritating things, and there will be people who are walking down the street and mumbling incoherently to themselves,” Silverstein said. “And that might make you feel a little nervous but the point is that the government can’t regulate that speech.”

Silverstein said Denver and other cities have since been looking at revising their own panhandling ordinances.

“The court  looked at every provision, including the one you mentioned that prohibited soliciting near an ATM, and the court said ‘I don’t see how asking for money within 20 feet of an ATM threatens public safety,’” Silverstein said.

Street performer Al Mitchell said he sees aggressive panhandlers every day.

“They get in the person`s face or kind of argumentative,” Mitchell said. “Kind of like they expect to get money from them like they`re entitled or something.”

Denver Police gave out close to 350 panhandling citations last year, 230 specifically for aggressive panhandling.

The department continues to enforce associated criminal behaviors such as assault, disorderly conduct and blocking the right of way.

That’s something Mitchell said he would never do. He just performs, with his cup ready for anyone who likes what they hear.

“If people want to help out, that's great,” Mitchell said.

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