Aggressive Panhandling: Brother, can you spare a dime?

Aggressive Panhandling: Brother, can you spare a dime?

Is street begging and panhandling protected by First Amendment rights of free speech, or should the rights of those who find this behavior bothersome prevail?

Honest panhandler. (Image via Wikipedia.)

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2015 — Panhandling, or begging, is a much-debated topic across the country. Everyone has experienced it. Men, women and sometimes even children solicit money alongside street intersections, standing in the medians and walking along the line of stopped cars, holding ragged cardboard “please help” signs briefly describing stories of homelessness, disabilities, lost jobs or children to feed.

Panhandlers are everywhere: in airports, near ATM machines, banks, bus stops and restaurants. The Department of Housing and Urban Development published a report in early 2014 indicating that just under 600,000 people in the United States were homeless. Of those, approximately 85,000 were labeled “chronically homeless” and about 50,000 were veterans.

Sometimes the stories on their cardboard signs are true. But the truth is, most panhandlers are not homeless. Some are professional beggars. That does not mean they do not need the money.

Few of the stories on the signs tell what the money will really be used for. Sometimes the money is used to support drug, alcohol or tobacco addictions. For others, the money really is used to buy food or hygiene products and even to help pay rent.

Is panhandling legal? It depends where you are.

Panhandling laws date to England in 1349. During the feudal period, poor people “belonged” to feudal lords. When the system collapsed, many of these people took to wandering and begging. They were called vagabonds, vagrants or beggars. Along came King Edward III, wanting to “do something,” and soon the Statutes of Laborers were enacted, restricting people to their own towns and prohibiting begging. Everybody had to work – that was the law.

Fast forward to the United States and the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right of free speech. Federal courts have consistently ruled that asking for money is within that right.

The First Federal Circuit, covering Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, has ruled anti-panhandling laws are unconstitutional, but says “aggressive” panhandling restrictions are okay.

The Fourth Circuit, covering North and South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, says panhandling and solicitation of charitable contributions are permissible as protected speech.

The town of Springfield, Illinois, passed an anti-panhandling law in 2007. President Lincoln lived in Springfield, and thousands of tourists visit there every year. Begging there got out of control, with panhandlers asking for change from people waiting in line to see Lincoln’s house, knocking on the car windows of people stopped at red lights and interrupting people on restaurant patios. There was even an incident where someone grabbed a piece of someone else’s lunch.

Interviewed while stationed in a Subway store parking lot, a 20-year Springfield panhandler, Don Norton, said, “Sometimes we get donations right away. Otherwise, it can take up to three or four hours … You can’t pinpoint who is going to give: the sweet-looking little old lady might spit in your face, while the guy with the crew cut presses a $20 bill into your hand.”

Norton and his wife both panhandle. They collect about $100 per day. Along with the odd jobs they do, like shoveling snow, maintenance work and painting, they make enough to pay their rent and to buy food and necessities.

Some jurisdictions make it a crime to donate to the homeless. A Texas chef was ticketed for feeding the homeless without a permit. Two pastors and a 90-year old man were arrested for feeding the homeless in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

One problem with people asking for money lies in the form of the request. There is a difference between passive and what has become known as “aggressive” panhandling. Another problem lies in the very presence of those soliciting. In retail environs, shop owners object to people asking for money, claiming the beggars’ presence deters shoppers from coming into their businesses. Civic associations say that the presence of panhandlers adversely affects “the experience” of being downtown or in other public gathering places.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, a 2013 law makes it illegal to stand in a roadway median or walk into traffic to ask for money from idling drivers and bans begging within 20 feet of restaurants, banks and ATMs. Violators can be arrested and fined $50.

Miriam Aukerman, an ACLU attorney in Michigan, says she is surprised cities pass and try to enforce these anti-panhandling laws, “given that every federal appellate court so far has ruled begging constitutional.”

Here are selected portions of a typical city ordinance prohibiting “aggressive” begging:

Aggressive manner means and includes:

(a) Approaching or speaking… or following a person before, during or after soliciting, asking or begging, or continuing to solicit … if that conduct is intended or is likely to cause a reasonable person to (i) Fear bodily harm or fear damage to or loss of property … (ii) Otherwise be intimidated into giving money or other thing of value;

(b) Intentionally touching or causing physical contact with another person or an occupied vehicle …

(c) Intentionally blocking or interfering with the safe or free passage of a pedestrian or vehicle by any means… or

(d) Using obscene or abusive words or violent or threatening …

Public place means any highway, street, lane, park … within the city limits and open to the public.

Solicit means to request an immediate donation of money or other thing of value … in the form of the spoken, written or printed word, or an outstretched hand, an extended cup or hat, etc.

Here is a portion of another law:

Solicitation of donations is protected by … the U.S. Constitution and therefore is permitted in public places… The city council finds that aggressive soliciting can interfere with the right and ability of the public to move freely in public spaces, and that restrictions on aggressive soliciting will promote and maintain the public purposes of security, general welfare, comfort, peace, health, trade, commerce and industry… a prohibition on soliciting from vehicles at … intersections serves the public health, safety and welfare but does not violate rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, where panhandling is legal but discouraged, homeless advocacy groups and the government created a campaign to help the homeless, titled “Give a hand up, not a handout.” They say giving cash to panhandlers does not help. The campaign encourages county residents to make donations to local organizations that provide assistance to those in need.

My father-in-law once gave a man he thought to be homeless a sandwich. The man looked at it and said “what, no drink?”

Looks like the holiday season is rapidly approaching.


Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website

His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website:

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