By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – Those who stand on the corners of busy Chehalis intersections asking for money – typically with a handwritten cardboard sign declaring their need – may need to relocate to a quieter part of town if they want to avoid a fine.
Those whose begging practices include getting up close and personal with their targets, or even fibbing about their bad luck situation, need to take heed as well.
A new law went into effect on Wednesday, heavily curtailing panhandling inside the city limits of Chehalis.
The ordinance was passed by the city council last week. It basically puts off limits all of Chamber of Commerce Way, the arterial that takes shoppers over Interstate 5 at the north end of town to the roughly one mile north-south stretch that is home to Wal-Mart, the Twin City Town Center and other businesses. The activity is essentially banned as well all along that retail strip of Northwest Louisiana Avenue from K-Mart to beyond I-5 Toyota .
It also prohibits the act of panhandling, begging or soliciting within 25 feet of the entrance to any building anywhere in the city, or, within 25 feet of a potential “donor’s” parked vehicle while they are loading or unloading it. And after dark.
A first time violation can cost $250.
Chehalis Police Chief Glenn Schaffer said back when the city of Centralia enacted its rules on panhandling, he was asked if Chehalis ought to do the same. He said no, he didn’t see any problems, at the time.
But that’s changed over the past year or so, Schaffer said.
“We’ve started seeing trash accumulating, and getting complaints from businesses in the area,” he said earlier this week.
Sometimes it’s been about panhandlers who would return, even after being asked to leave, he said.
“And complaints from business owners and managers, who are getting complaints from their customers, who are being approached as they’re coming and going,” he said.
While a first-time violation is a civil infraction, a ticket, further offenses could prompt the issuance of a citation for a criminal misdemeanor, according to the chief.
That kind of citation would mean a mandatory appearance before a judge and, if convicted, a fine of up to $1,000 and as long as 90 days in jail.
The city council passed the new law last week at its regular meeting, claiming serious public harm caused by panhandlers.
The ordinance’s introductory section expresses the council’s desire to protect citizens and visitors from fear and intimidation from some kinds of solicitation.
It also makes note of the city’s interest in promoting business and tourism and preserving the quality of urban life as well as mentioning risk to traffic and public safety.
Certain kinds of panhandling are outlawed altogether, anywhere, anytime.
The ordinance bans what it calls coercive solicitation, which includes what some might think of as aggressive panhandling, and also includes making any false or misleading representations in the course of a solicitation.
Prohibited activity includes approaching within one foot of the person, persisting after the person gives a negative response, blocking a person or their vehicle, or engaging in any conduct that would reasonably be construed as intended to compel or force a person being solicited to accede to demands.
Chehalis’s police Sgt. Gary Wilson said the first day under the new rules went fine.
“There were none out there to be seen,” Wilson said. “So either word spread around, or maybe it was the weather.”
The issue came up back in May, when Council Member Chad Taylor asked if the city manager might look into Centralia’s ordinance on panhandling, so that Chehalis could do something similar.
At a June city council meeting, Chief Schaffer reported back, according to minutes from the meeting, explaining the city could put restrictions in place if they served a significant government interest, as long as they left open sufficient channels for the activity. An individual’s right to beg for money is protected speech under the First Amendment, Schaffer told the council.
He noted Chehalis the year before had repealed its former panhandling ordinance because it was unconstitutional and unenforceable.
Schaffer told the council they had received about 20 complaints since January, all related to panhandling on private property, specifically the Twin City Town Center, the Main Street Food Mart and the Jack-in-the Box. He noted the police department had gotten no official complaints regarding panhandling on public property, but there had been a number of comments such as “they make me feel uncomfortable” and, “can something be done about the trash they leave behind.”
He offered up details about Pierce County’s private property soliciting ordinance, but Mayor Dennis Dawes said it appeared there was interest on the part of the council to take it to the next step.
Earlier this month, the proposed ordinance was brought before the council, with a discussion that included how panhandlers presence in driveways and along roadways adds to the traffic hazards. Schaffer reported that 45 percent of city-wide traffic accidents during the past three years occurred in the area that is Chamber Way from State Street to Louisiana Avenue, and along Louisiana Avenue from K-Mart to Home Depot.
Specifically, in terms of locations on the map, the ordinance that passed bans solicitation within 25 feet of the entrance to any building, unless specific permission has been given by the business owner or occupant.
It’s banned at all on or off ramps to state routes or interstate highways, specifically all those along Interstate 5; at Chamber Way, Main Street and 13th Street.
It’s banned within 300 feet – think the length of a football field – from any of the three intersections along Chamber of Commerce Way: at National Avenue, at State Street and at Louisiana Avenue.
It’s banned within 300 feet of the entrances to the parking lots of all businesses from the 1200 block of Louisiana Avenue, K-Mart, to the 2100 block of Louisiana Avenue, north of I-5 Toyota.
The same goes for any driveways existing or installed in the future on the street between Wal-Mart and Home Depot known as Arkansas Way.
One part of the ordinance also prohibits any kind of selling or distributing anything to a person who is in a vehicle at any of those locations in the congested area.
Another section makes it clear that providing or delivering unrequested services or products with a demand for payment would be a coercive solicitation.
Chief Schaffer this week said he didn’t know if 25 feet meant every part of the sidewalks that run through the historic center of town on North Market Boulevard are off limits. Sgt. Wilson said he thought that might be true, but officers would have to look at each case as it comes.
The chief said he didn’t know if any of the collisions he counted in the congested areas were actually caused by panhandlers, only that there is the further distraction of people on the corners with signs, and motorists stopping to give money.
He also couldn’t address exactly what was the “serious public harm” caused by panhandling cited in the ordinance, saying those weren’t his words.
The ordinance notes the city still allows for safe and appropriate venues for the constitutionally protected activity.
“We can’t outright prohibit it,” Schaffer said. “So if people want to peacefully panhandle, as long as it’s not in the area outlined in the ordinance, they’re free to do that.”
Ordinance No. 944-B, is added as an amendment to Chapter 7.04.320 of the Chehalis Municipal Code.