Crystal Lake, Woodstock review panhandling ordinances after federal court rulings

Panhandling for web use only
Panhandling for web use only

CRYSTAL LAKE – Both Crystal Lake and Woodstock are having their panhandling ordinances reviewed after such laws have been overturned in recent court cases. However, police said it’s not an issue that elicits much enforcement locally.

Across the nation, the number of cities with anti-panhandling laws is up, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

“We have seen the growth of these ordinances over the past few years nationally ... I believe, because of the ongoing growth of homelessness,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney for the center.

Twenty-five percent of cities surveyed had citywide bans on begging in public in 2014, a 25 percent increase since 2011, according to a report from the center. Seventy-six percent of cities banned begging in particular public places, a 20 percent increase.

However, many McHenry County communities don’t specifically address panhandling in their municipal codes. Officials in Fox River Grove, Algonquin and Cary, among others, have said it’s not a widespread issue.

Even in places that have an ordinance, it’s not enforced very often.

In Crystal Lake, there were only 11 adjudication citations issued for panhandling during the past five years, Cmdr. Tom Kotlowski said.

In Woodstock, there were 121 solicitor complaints from June 2013 to October 2015, but according to information from Police Chief Robert Lowen, only two tickets have been written for panhandling since the ordinance went into effect in 2013.

“This is definitely not something we respond to or take action on with any sort of frequency,” Kotlowski said.

Still, the Crystal Lake ordinance is being reviewed after similar laws across the country, and within the state, have been overturned or challenged based on a June Supreme Court ruling on the size of church signs.

The ruling was based on content discrimination, which means a type of speech is singled out without a compelling reason. Other federal judges recently have cited the ruling in challenging panhandling laws in a number of cities.

In August, a three-judge panel ruled Springfield’s panhandling ban was unconstitutional. The city has since asked the nation’s highest court to weigh in on the ban, which is geared toward Springfield’s historic downtown area.

The city’s argument is the ban is meant to regulate the behavior of panhandlers, not their message.

In both Crystal Lake and Woodstock, the ordinances restrict panhandling in certain areas, such as bus stops, any public transportation vehicle or facility, and within 20 feet of an automatic teller machine. Both cities also prohibit aggressive panhandling, which is defined using a number of actions.

For instance, touching someone without consent while panhandling would make it aggressive, as would following someone during or after a request, according to the cities’ codes.

From the law center’s standpoint, any law prohibiting panhandling “should be taken off the books altogether,” Tars said, adding it’s a “quick fix” that criminalizes the homeless.

In Crystal Lake, police go out on every call about begging, but enforcement doesn’t always follow because the person, while panhandling, often won’t be doing it in a way that violates the law, Kotlowski said.

And the law could change depending on what legal staff find, he added.

“They’re examining our current ordinance to see what changes need to be made,” Kotlowski said.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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