Akron attempting to crack down on panhandling

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AKRON, Ohio - An attorney with the ACLU has threatened to sue the City of Akron unless it repeals an ordinance that requires panhandlers to register.

The letter was sent by Joseph Mead, who claims that the ordinance violates the panhandler's right to freedom of speech.

"Asking a neighbor for help should not be a crime," writes Mead, an Akron resident who tells Fox 8 News that it is something he has felt very passionate about for a long time.

"The letter asks the city to repeal its anti-panhandling ordinance and it does so because every single federal court decision in recent memory has struck down laws like Akron's because they unconstitutionally infringe on the right of free speech, the right to ask people to help," explained Mead in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Police, however, say the ordinance already protects most of the people who residents might consider to be panhandlers.

People like Jeffrey Young who has stood on Akron street corners for years holding a sign that claims he is homeless and soliciting help.

"I had one Akron P.D. sergeant pulled up on me and he said you dont have to have that to do this," said Young, referring to his panhandler registration I.D.

Police say what many misunderstand is how the ordinance defines a 'panhandler.'

"Those people are really not a panhandler by definition. They are already protected by their constitutional rights. They are not different than somebody standing outside an abortion clinic holding a sign or a protester holding a sign in front of a rally a pep rally. There's no difference. They are not asking for anything regardless of what the sign says. They are not approaching you; they are just staying there. If you feel the kindness in your heart to make that donation then people make that donation," said Akron Police Lieutenant Rick Edwards.

He says the ordinance treats those people no differently than someone who may be standing outside of a local business wearing a sandwich board and advertising from the side of the road.

Edwards explains that the ordinance is directed at people who are not out holding signs, but who aggressively approach others in a threatening manner demanding money, cigarettes, gasoline, food, or anything else.

Even then, Edwards says there needs to be a victim willing to make a statement, or police need to witness the activity firsthand before they can issue a citation, so very few cases are ever made.

Mead's letter argues that the requirement for any panhandler to register "makes it illegal for people to ask for help by imposing burdensome restrictions on when, where, and how this speech can take place."

"There's not a lawsuit, but if the law is not repealed soon I think there will be a lawsuit very soon," Mead told Fox 8.

"This is sort of the city's last chance to avoid costly litigation," he added.

Akron City Councilman Zack Milkovich also spoke with Fox 8 News saying he would be willing to reconsider the ordinance, but wanted to learn more about the ACLU's concerns.

Other council members who were contacted were not available or did not return calls.

Akron City Council has scheduled a special meeting on Monday to discuss the threatened suit.​

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