Springfield's effort to reduce panhandling in the downtown area is facing a legal challenge. While business owners say a city ordinance has worked, critics say it infringes on free speech rights.
Augie Mrozowski is busy in his kitchen. The chef and owner of Augie's Front Burner in the shadow of the Old State Capitol is cooking up today's lunch special... the horseshoe. Springfield is known for the dish. It's also been known for panhandlers downtown. So much that the problem got to a point where businesses were hearing about it from customers. Mrozowski says he even had a panhandler once eat food off of a customer's plate who was dining outside. And he's had other problems.
"There's a guy that comes around... And in a roundabout way he'll act like... He'll flag them in and say you can park here, stuff like that. It's annoying to the customers too. It's a way of saying you're going to have to pay me for me showing you where to park. So, these people, as soon as I see them I chase them away and let them know right out front that panhandling is totally illegal. There's an ordinance in the City of Springfield not allowing it," Mrozowski said.
That ordinance has been in place for more than 6 years. But many still don't understand it. In fact, panhandling is allowed downtown, with a big caveat. Verbally asking someone to give you something is off limits. That means a person sitting or performing with a sign seeking donations is ok.
Springfield police have issued 306 tickets since the ordinance took effect.
Two people who have been cited, Don Norton and Karen Otterson, are taking the city to court, arguing the ordinance violates their freedom of speech. Adele Nicholas is their attorney.
"The problem with what Springfield is doing is that it's not a limited, targeted ordinance that appropriately regulates how the speech takes place. It simply says, 'You may not speak. If you wish to ask for donations, you may not do so in the downtown historic district,'" Nicholas said.
A judge rejected their argument, but an appeal has been filed. Springfield's ordinance was based off of similar laws in other cities. Springfield Alderman Sam Cahnman helped put it together. His ward includes the downtown area. He says he expects the ordinance to hold up in court. He says the issue is how it has been enforced.
"Some people had been ticketed for just standing there with a sign. Now, if that's the case... that shouldn't have been done. Those people, what they should have done was they should have gone to the city municipal court when they got the ticket and defended themselves by asserting that they did not violate the ordinance because they didn't make a verbal request for money," Cahnman said.
Panhandling is part of a larger issue, according to homeless advocates. Rod Lane is Director of Helping Hands, which operates a shelter downtown. He says where people are in need, they will seek help along the streets.
"That's not going to change. I don't care how many laws are invented. You can arrest people all day long, you're not going to stop people from panhandling. And I think it's kindof a useless tactic to assume it will go away. It will not," Lane said.
Lane says Helping Hands does not take a public stance on panhandling. But he sees the city ordinance as futile.
"When people are arrested that have no money, often they're... they can't pay fines. They're let go. And so, it's just a revolving door for them. And it costs the city more money than it's really worth over someone asking for something," Lane continued.
A federal judge has turned down a request to stop Springfield from enforcing its ordinance while a lawsuit plays out. Overall, courts have been mixed when it comes to panhandling laws.
Some rulings have upheld bans on aggressive begging while others have viewed peaceful requests as a protected form of free speech. Towns across the country will be watching the Springfield case as it could impact how they deal with the issue.