D.C. Council Chairman John A. Wilson is reviving a bill to prosecute aggressive sidewalk panhandlers and penalize them with fines or brief jail sentences.
Wilson's bill, which the council left in committee last year, would subject panhandlers who are convicted of harassment to fines as high as $500 and 10-day prison sentences. Wilson said he reintroduced the bill in response to continuing complaints from neighborhood merchants and pedestrians.
"We have been trying to control this problem for some time, but some constituents feel enough isn't being done about it," Wilson said yesterday. "And businesses find it difficult to operate in an environment of aggressive panhandlers because it drives their customers away."
If enacted, the bill would punish panhandlers convicted of "offensive physical conduct" with a $500 fine or 10 days in jail. Any panhandler convicted of detaining or obstructing pedestrians would be fined $250.
The proposed legislation is another in a series of recent attempts to rid city streets of menacing panhandlers, and it reflects the rising sentiment against them in many large cities.
In November, D.C. police officers briefly began arresting panhandlers in Georgetown and several downtown neighborhoods by invoking an obscure city ordinance that bans begging in public. But the American Civil Liberties Union vowed to fight the ordinance in court if police enforced it regularly.
ACLU officials have said that a strict ban on begging is not constitutional because it violates the guaranteed right of free speech.
Wilson's bill would require police to arrest panhandlers, but only those who are observed striking or harassing pedestrians. "This is for a very select group of them," Wilson said. "They are the ones who make life difficult."
Last fall, in the most prominent move against begging to date, the Supreme Court allowed New York City to ban panhandlers from its subway system. Charitable groups were excluded from the decision, which supported an earlier federal court ruling that begging was not a form of free speech.
Washington's Metro system bars panhandlers and charitable groups from its subway platforms, so it was not affected by the court's decision.
Some business and community leaders in the District have begun efforts to curb panhandling, and have pressured police to increase patrols on commercial blocks. Instead of handing out money to beggars, a Capitol Hill merchants group is giving residents and shop owners wallet-sized cards that list shelters with food and clothing for panhandlers.
Don Denton, a spokesman for the group, said yesterday that Wilson's bill would be welcome assistance. "Anything will help," Denton said. "Panhandling has become a very serious problem, and some of these guys are abusive."