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Panhandlers settle their lawsuit with Salt Lake City

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of people who live and panhandle in Salt Lake City can continue to do so as long as their actions do not create safety concerns, according to a settlement agreement issued Tuesday.

The agreement settles a lawsuit brought by panhandlers Terry Lee Wilkinson, Patty Eagle and Jackie Sanchez against Salt Lake City Corp., Mayor Ralph Becker, Police Chief Chris Burbank and former city prosecutor Sim Gill.

Under the agreement, Salt Lake police will not issue citations for standing on a sidewalk or near a road while holding a sign asking people for money. Such expression is constitutionally protected, as long as it "does not result in impeding pedestrian traffic or creating a legitimate safety concern," according to the order signed by U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart.

The settlement resolves a lawsuit brought against the city last summer after Wilkinson and others complained about being ticketed for holding a cardboard sign downtown.

Police had stepped up enforcement of a law on the books for decades that prohibits people from holding signs along city streets — no matter what the sign says.

This fall, police backed off enforcement of that law while city officials worked to craft an ordinance that would regulate when, where and how people solicit donations from strangers in the city.

Last month, a majority of the Salt Lake City Council voted against implementing the so-called "commercial solicitation" ordinance. Council members say the issue will be revisited in the near future, though no date for that discussion has been set.

Bill Tibbitts, Anti-Hunger Project director for Crossroads Urban Center, says Tuesday's settlement and the council's rejection of the commercial solicitation ordinance last month are steps in the right direction.

"City officials seem to have recognized that what they are worried about is a social work issue, not a law enforcement issue," Tibbitts said. "Hopefully they will now begin looking for solutions that are more likely to succeed in getting people with real problems off the streets."

Civil rights attorney Brian Barnard, who represented the group of panhandlers in the case, said many problems related to aggressive panhandling are tied into social problems, such as addictions or mental illness.

The city should deal with those, Barnard said, through social programs, "not criminal sanctions."

"We need to tackle underlying social ills and not punish those who are suffering from poverty, addiction, mental illness or homelessness," he said.

Barnard said the city can and should still enforce ordinances against blocking sidewalks, driveways or doorways, as well as threatening or harmful conduct.

"Such misconduct is not protected by the First Amendment," he said.

David Everitt, Becker's chief of staff, said city leaders "recognize the right of public expression and again state that panhandling is not illegal."

"Enforcing state law is the city's responsibility, which we will continue to do in situations where a person's actions create a legitimate safety concern for the travelling public," Everitt said. "Our focus remains on providing a safe downtown environment for everyone — including residents, businesses and visitors."

City leaders sought to get aggressive panhandling under control through the commercial solicitation ordinance. As proposed, it would have prohibited people from asking others for money within 10 feet of specific areas, including sidewalk cafes or outdoor dining areas; places where people line up to purchase tickets or get into an event; bus or train stops; and ATMs.

It also would have made it illegal to panhandle throughout the city after sunset and before sunrise. In addition, anyone who intimidates, threatens or causes "a reasonable person to fear bodily harm" when asking for donations would have been in violation of the ordinance.

Such action would have been a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

Council members on the losing end of the 4-3 vote on Dec. 14 have said they will make sure the council revisits the issue this year.