Changes to panhandling could be on the way in Harris County as Commissioners Court received a report in late January on proposed changes to solicitation in unincorporated Harris County.
The report calls for stopping all solicitation in lanes of traffic, citing safety issues as the main concern, but the job of enforcing the law—which would be up to patrol officers—is also an issue for one county commissioner.
"There is definitely a safety issue, but there's a lot of folks who believe some of the panhandlers have become aggressive and are complaining to police," Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said. "I believe those concerns are valid, but how do you allow some people to solicit in the street and some not?"
Typically, before the county can pass a regulation, the state Legislature must first pass a law. In this case, a section of the transportation code instead allows county government to regulate solicitation.
Last July, Commissioners Court appointed a committee to study the issue following a decision from a federal court in Houston that struck down a law regulating solicitation.
"The courts have made it clear that public streets and sidewalks are traditional forums for speech, and that includes solicitation—whether its for the Red Cross or a meal for yourself—that's all protected activity," assistant county attorney Glen Van Slyke said. "Some think we should make distinctions and allow only charitable organizations to do this, but that's why the state law was invalidated. They won't allow the government to make a distinction like that."
Although the report suggests stopping all panhandling in lanes of traffic, medians and islands, groups would still be able to solicit from nearby sidewalks.
"The most common problem is people standing in medians to solicit or sell things to the driver of a car waiting for the light to change," Van Slyke said. "The primary interest is safety not only for pedestrians, but for motorists of the vehicles trying to get through the intersection and not having their attention distracted by fumbling around in a purse or wallet to find money to give to someone."
Because of the sheer size of Harris County, panhandling and solicitation is common throughout most precincts, but is mainly a problem at busy intersections.
"It's been an issue on FM 1960, but I don't think it's unique to this area at all," said Barbara Thomason, president of the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce. "People sometimes expect the firemen to come out once a year and do their rally on a Saturday, and I don't think that detracts, but if you have a constant group soliciting—whether they're sanctioned or not—you can go mentally numb from seeing them."
If the proposed regulations are approved in the future, charges would be filed in a justice of the peace court and violators would be charged with a Class C misdemeanor.
"Our indication is that the patrol officers would give the person a warning and tell them they can get a ticket," Van Slyke said. "I think it would be a public education effort to start with."
Before the proposed regulations are considered further by Commissioners Court, public hearings could be held throughout the county to receive public input on the report.
"It's going to be an extremely controversial issue," Radack said. "You're going to have some very interesting policy issues for the sheriff and constables to explore."