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Santa Barbara Will Consider Harsher Regulations on Active Panhandling, Nuisance Behavior

The city's Ordinance Committee will discuss proposed buffer zones near such areas as outdoor dining areas, ATMs and public transportation

Tightening up regulations on panhandling downtown while still preserving free speech and other legal rights of the people involved will be under discussion at Santa Barbara's Ordinance Committee meeting Tuesday.

In April, the City Council asked the committee to look at several issues raised by Councilmen Randy Rowse and Frank Hotchkiss, including expanding the hours of the city's sit/lie ordinance and adding a prohibition on sitting or lying in certain places such as planters, railings or statues placed on a public sidewalk.

The council members also asked the city attorney to look into the constitutional implications of expanding panhandling prohibitions within 80 feet of an ATM, an expansion from the 25-foot limit in place now. 

The city's municipal code defines several types of panhandling, including passive panhandling, which could include holding a sign asking for money while not verbally calling out, as well as active panhandling, which would include someone asking another person directly for money or other items of value.  

Both are protected speech, but active panhandling is prohibited by ordinance in certain areas of the city currently, including bus stops or in lines of people waiting to get into a movie theater or other business. 

The Ordinance Committee will consider "expanded safety zones around sensitive locations where captive audiences feel threatened by active panhandling," according to the staff report. The new zones propose buffers near outdoor dining areas, ATMs, admission lines such as movie queues, public benches or seating areas, and on buses or other public transportation.

Earlier this year, the council also asked city staff to look into prohibiting urinating or defecating in public. Those cases are treated as infractions and citations since they're not specifically mentioned in city or state rules — they fall under a general littering prohibition, according to police.  

The city may also explore what actions, if any, can be taken against people who block the sidewalk to pedestrians or use public benches to display personal items or items for sale.

To prepare for Tuesday's meeting, city staff mapped the downtown core business areas and the areas affected by the ordinances, and included ATMs, movie theater lines, public benches, outdoor dining and paseos on State Street.

This map shows a close-up of the 800 block of State Street with the proposed “buffers” from active panhandling that are being considered at Tuesday’s meeting. (City of Santa Barbara photo)

The committee will have to determine whether ample alternatives exist for protected speech, which includes panhandling, in those areas.

Extending the hours of the city's sit/lie ordinance could also present a challenge, and some precedent exists that the city attorney is asking the committee to consider.

For example, a group of homeless individuals successfully sued the City of Los Angeles in 2006 after the city enacted a law that criminalized sitting, lying or sleeping in public in the city at all times.

They won the case by arguing that the law constituted cruel and unusual punishment because their was no shelter space available for them as an alternative, and that the rules criminalized them for being homeless.

Santa Barbara's ordinance would apply to a specific portion of State Street during certain hours, but the court could still find that the expansion of hours "inappropriately burdens those who have nowhere else to sleep," the staff report said.

The council can enact time, place and manner restrictions on protected speech, but must prove that they are neutral to the content of the message, the rules are narrowly drawn and that there are other ample alternatives for communication.

Tuesday's meeting is scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m. in Santa Barbara City Hall Council Chambers at 735 Anacapa St.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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