LEWISTON, Maine — The city has a bigger problem with aggressive panhandlers than it does with people begging for change blocking traffic, according to police Chief Michael Bussiere.
Bussiere recommended that the city adopt ordinances that do two things: They address panhandling in traffic and aggressive panhandling.
“That’s not just asking for money or cigarettes of pills or whatever else,” Bussiere said. “In addition to that, they ask in such a way that it’s especially intimidating or they follow people after they’ve been told no.”
He outlined possible rules to city councilors at a workshop meeting Tuesday.
“The idea behind this ordinance is not to ban solicitation,” he said. “We’re pretty comfortable that we can’t do that. It’s a First Amendment concern. But we do have to address the more serious concerns, and those are hazards in the roadway and aggressive solicitation.”
Portland’s City Council approved an ordinance last month that bans loitering on street medians, effectively banning people from begging for change from cars stopped at traffic lights. Portland’s new ordinance is scheduled to take effect Thursday.
That does happen in Lewiston, Bussiere said. His department received 33 complaints about panhandlers during the last 12 months. Some of those were people begging for change in traffic, but most were complaints of aggressive panhandlers.
“Is it tops on our list of problems? Clearly not,” Bussiere said. “But it is something we don’t want to become a bigger problem.”
The proposed ordinances would levy fines for people who ask for rides, work, contributions, sales or donations from from drivers on a city street.
People convicted of aggressive begging — blocking a person who declines to give the panhandler money, food or cigarettes, using profanity or following them — face fines as well.
City Councilor Mark Cayer said he’s witnessed that kind of begging in front of the Lewiston Post Office.
“I see him, and he’s an intimidating 6 feet, and and he approaches the elderly people,” Cayer said. “You can see it on their face — they want to get around him but he’s big.”
Fines would start at $100 for the first incident and increase by $100 per incident. The fines would top out at $400 per incident for four or more convictions.
Councilors will see the proposal again at a meeting later this year.