The County continues to receive complaints about panhandling at intersections, which can pose a safety hazard. However, because panhandling is protected by the First Amendment, localities generally may not prohibit it. Some localities have instead posted signs instructing drivers to not give money to people in medians. In Prince William, most roads are owned by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). It is unlikely that VDOT will grant permission for such signage. Below is more information on the issue.
Why Are Courts Ruling That Panhandling Ordinances Are Unconstitutional?
- The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the enactment of laws “abridging the freedom of speech.”
- The courts have said “There is no question that panhandling and solicitation of charitable contributions are protected speech.
- Medians are traditional public forums. The government has very
limited power to regulate speech in a traditional public forum.
- Panhandling ordinances are “content-based” and therefore subject to the toughest standard of review – “strict scrutiny.”
- For a law to survive strict scrutiny, a court must find that the regulation is “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling state interest.” Panhandling ordinances fail both requirements.
Why Did PWC Repeal Its Panhandling Ordinances?
- PWC’s ordinances on panhandling were worded similarly to ordinances that were struck down by the courts in other jurisdictions.
- If the County’s panhandling ordinances were challenged and struck down in court, the County would likely have to pay attorney’s fees.
- In 2015 the Charlottesville City Council approved a $125,000 settlement with the five homeless men that sued the city over its panhandling ordinance.
- Other Virginia localities have repealed their panhandling ordinances.
Why PWC Can’t Install Similar Signs?
- The signs would be permissible under the First Amendment. However, the signs would need approval from the property owner.
- Most of the public roadways in PWC are owned and maintained by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
VDOT probably will not approve custom signs, such as anti-solicitations signs, to be installed on roads they maintain.
Other Virginia localities that have such signs maintain their own roadways. This affords those localities more autonomy in installing custom signs.
What Are Localities Outside Virginia Doing to Discourage Panhandling?
- Planting flowers or other vegetation in medians has allowed other localities to remove individuals from the medians by enforcing ordinances that prohibit damage to plants maintained by the city or county. There are issues with this option, such as the safety of gardeners maintaining the plants in the median.
- Some localities have published Public Service Announcements; websites, videos and flyers, in the hope of educating citizens about alternative methods for assisting panhandlers.
- Panhandling-to-Work Programs have become popular in many large cities. These non-profit programs provides no-skill jobs to panhandlers with a goal of integrating them back into full-time employment.
- Some localities use Donation Meters, which are brightly colored parking meters placed in areas of high pedestrian traffic with information discouraging panhandling while collecting donations for the homeless. PWC does not have many parking meters, and the property owner would need to agree to these meters being placed on their property, similar to the signs.
Are There Other PWC Ordinances That Can Help?
County Code Section 13-313 prohibits impeding traffic. If there are concerns regarding traffic safety, please contact the Police Department (911 if an emergency, 703 792-6500 if a non-emergency). Prince William County Code Section 29-2 in part prohibits the damaging of plants on land owned or maintained by the County, including landscaping in medians.