Eight people cited for panhandling on Madison streets in first 6 months of law

November 5, 2017 GMT

In six months, eight people have been cited a total of 27 times for violating a controversial Madison law that effectively bans panhandling on medians and terraces of major streets.

The law, approved by the City Council on a 12-8 vote in February and put into effect April 10, bans people from entering a road to approach an operating car on about 100 of the city’s busiest roads, while limiting people on medians to two consecutive opportunities to cross a street.

It also applies to the first 200 feet of any road with a median that intersects one of several specified streets. The prohibition along highways applies to everyone, including advertisers and campaigners.

Since the law went into effect, complaints about roadside panhandlers have “dropped significantly” and many of those formerly engaged in the activity have moved to surrounding communities, Police Chief Mike Koval said.

“At this junction, it appears to be having the desired outcome,” Koval said.

“The data is pretty much what we expected,” said Mayor Paul Soglin, who pushed for the law. A handful of people tested law enforcement during a phase-in period, but that diminished after officers began issuing citations, he said.

In a memo to Soglin and council members Thursday, Koval said officers began issuing citations only after several weeks of giving verbal warnings to offenders and distributing informational pamphlets about the law and community resources available for those in need. A first citation costs $92.50. The second within a year is $187, the third $313 and the fourth $439.

Seven panhandlers were cited one to three times, and one panhandler, a 46-year-old man, was cited 15 times.

Of the eight people issued citations, one was female, and half listed no permanent address at least one of the times they were cited. Five of the panhandlers were white, two were black and one was Native American.

There has been an active campaign to link people who claim no permanent address to social services, Koval said, adding that the person cited 15 times has repeatedly turned down offers for services, including job opportunities.

Enforcement is predominantly complaint-driven, but officers can be proactive when they see violations, he said.

Soglin had been trying to address panhandling in medians since May 2016 after he had recommended that police fully suspend enforcement of the city’s broad 2012 panhandling ordinance due to court decisions that underscored the beggars’ First Amendment right to ask for money.

Critics of the current law claimed city officials were callous and violating people’s rights, while supporters insisted it was needed for the safety of panhandlers and motorists. Panhandlers can still operate elsewhere in the city.

After Madison began enforcing its law, neighboring Fitchburg saw an uptick in panhandling primarily in the Fish Hatchery Road corridor. The city later approved and implemented a law similar to Madison’s, and the panhandlers moved on, Fitchburg police Lt. Chad Brecklin said.