Intersection panhandlers and drivers who give them money could face stiff fines or even jail time under an ordinance approved by the Wichita City Council on Tuesday.
The idea behind it is to try to rid the city of panhandlers who wait at freeway ramps and well-traveled intersections, carrying signs asking for money.
The new ordinance prohibits anyone from stepping into a major or congested street or intersection to get something from a motorist. It also bans drivers from giving something to someone in the road.
While it used to be an infraction carrying a $20 fine, the new ordinance makes it a criminal misdemeanor with a possible maximum penalty of a $500 fine and/or 30 days in jail.
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The council voted 7-0 for approval.
“I know similar ordinances have been done in Omaha and Colorado Springs and they have been successful in reducing accidents,” said council member Bryan Frye. “That’s really the intent of this.”
Although it would be up to a court to decide punishment, Deputy Police Chief Troy Livingston said enforcement will likely start with educational warnings, then fines, with potential jail time possible for repeat offenders.
And the panhandlers will be more likely to face enforcement than the motorists, he said.
“Hopefully we see the interaction and the person who’s cited will be the person who initiated that action, so, ideally, the … pedestrian that walked out into traffic, if they initiated that, they would be cited,” Livingston said. “If the driver’s initiating that, they could potentially be cited as well.”
Livingston said drivers were included in the ordinance because they have a responsibility to not get distracted.
“We did add it into this ordinance quite simply because we’re trying to discourage that behavior for safety reasons,” he said. “Whether it’s an issue with the pedestrian or the driver, we want them to focus on their driving.”
The new ordinance also bans charitable solicitations in the road.
For about 30 years, Wichita firefighters had conducted charity “fill the boot drives,” where they would ask motorists for donations while they were stopped for traffic lights.
That practice ended this year and the firefighters’ fundraising moved to business parking lots.
Four charities and their supporters had been granted permits to ask for donations in the street this year: the Children’s Miracle Network, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Wichita Children’s Home.
The council also passed a companion ordinance on Tuesday to crack down on “aggressive” panhandling.
It bars panhandlers from making physical contact, threatening or using profane language to try to prompt someone to give money.
The penalties for that could be up to $500 and/or six months in jail.
“If the behavior is particularly aggressive, they’re not going to get educated first,” Livingston said. “We’re here to protect our citizens and make sure everybody has a safe, fun time while they’re out in the community.”