City to consider increasing panhandling fines

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Tonight the City Council will be discussing an ordinance to raise the maximum fine for panhandling and trespassing. According to Mike Verveer, the trespassing ordinance is the closest thing Madison has to a loitering law.

It allows the police to bar people from hanging around in certain areas as long as they put up a poster warning that “trespassers” will be searched and fined. For instance, if there’s a parking lot where the cops believe there is drug dealing going on, they can put up a warning and then subsequently search and fine suspicious individuals found thereafter. The fine is currently $429.

I am no legal expert, but I suspect that very few American cities don’t have constitutionally dubious laws in place which allow the police to easily deal with petty crimes. Similarly, I suspect most local police departments tolerate panhandling and loitering to a certain extent, and only prosecute when it serves some other purpose, such as moving homeless residents to another area. I once heard a Madison cop tell a panhandler to “keep his cup hidden” in a certain area of state st, implying that he wasn’t in acceptable “panhandling zone.”

The ordinance has been proposed by Alds. Thuy and Paul Skidmore. The Public Safety Committee has recommended adoption and the Equal Opportunities Commission has recommended changes. Reports from the Downtown Plan shows panhandling to be a touchy issue for many Madisonians.

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