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New panhandling law in effect – even if it doesn’t look like it

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque city councilors this past November approved an ordinance that severely restricts panhandling, but you wouldn’t know the law has been in effect for a month given the number of people still asking for a handout at intersections throughout the city.

The ordinance prohibits panhandlers – and anyone else – from soliciting motorists or occupants of a vehicle at busy medians and even on sidewalks. It also makes it illegal for drivers and passengers to physically interact with them.

A spokesman for the Albuquerque Police Department said earlier this week that APD is concerned about the cost of budget constraints in enforcing the new measure, though he added that the bigger issue is making sure that everyone is educated about the new law.

“This was an ordinance adopted by City Council and passed by the previous administration,” Gilbert Gallegos, APD’s director of communications and community outreach, told the Journal in an emailed statement.

“APD is currently working to educate officers, as well as the public, about the new ordinance. This includes access to shelters, health care and housing solutions.”

APD is facing a manpower shortage, with about 135 fewer officers than are authorized and roughly 335 fewer officers than Mayor Tim Keller and others have said are needed. Albuquerque is also in the midst of a crime wave with a record number of murders last year and a spike in property crime.

Neither APD nor Keller’s administration would discuss whether the manpower shortage is impacting the police department’s ability to enforce the ordinance, nor would either say whether enforcing the ordinance is a priority for the Keller administration.

But Councilor Trudy Jones, the sponsor of the measure, said she has been assured by Keller that the ordinance will be enforced. She said the city is in a ramp-up period on enforcement, adding that she expects APD will begin enforcement in about two weeks.

“It will be enforced,” Jones said. “The administration has agreed to enforce it, but there are a couple of steps that need to be taken.”

Violating the ordinance is a petty misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $500, or not more than 90 days in jail, or both.

A panhandler walks the median on Jefferson and Osuna earlier this week, in violation of a new city ordinance that went into effect in early December. The sponsor of the new law said she has been assured by the new mayor that the ordinance will be enforced. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Jones said APD is working on standard operating procedures, and the city has put together a flier to hand to pedestrians and drivers violating the ordinance.

The flier, Jones said, outlines the new ordinance, explains the public safety reasons behind the ordinance, and has information about social service agencies that help people down on their luck.

“That’s what it’s about. It’s not to punish people,” she said, referring to the new city law.

Jones said the flier needs to be reviewed by the city’s legal department.

She acknowledged that enforcement of the ordinance will not be APD’s top priority, but she said “the mayor told me, ‘Yes, we will stand behind this. We will enforce this.’ ”

Councilors voted 8-0 to adopt the ordinance Nov. 6. Councilor Klarissa Peña was absent and did not vote on the measure.

Former Mayor Richard Berry neither signed nor vetoed the ordinance within 10 days, which, under the City Charter, means that the ordinance became city law at that point.

Acting City Clerk Trina Gurule told the Journal that the ordinance was published Dec. 1 and became effective Dec. 6.

The pedestrian safety ordinance doesn’t apply just to panhandlers. It also prohibits such things as boot brigades that firefighters sometimes engage in to raise money from motorists, an individual handing out fliers to motorists or any other activity when drivers – or occupants of their vehicles – are being asked to physically interact with a pedestrian.

The ban doesn’t apply in instances in which a motorist can safely pull over into street-side parking.

Under the new ordinance, a driver and vehicle occupants can be cited for physically engaging with panhandlers or others while in a travel lane.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has raised concerns about the constitutionality of the measure, arguing that people have a right to stand in public spaces like sidewalks and street corners to solicit.

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