Jeanne Kuang - Delaware Online
Wilmington City Council on Thursday relaxed some regulations on poverty-related crimes, a move the American Civil Liberties Union pushed to comply with recent federal court decisions.
Those decisions have cleared ordinances restricting panhandling off the books across the country, finding that the act of asking for money in public is free speech protected by the First Amendment.
The ACLU of Delaware wrote to city attorneys about Wilmington's panhandling ordinances in July, contending they were at odds with the court decisions and unfairly targeted the poor and homeless.
The measure, which Mayor Mike Purzycki's office supports, passed Thursday and deletes sections of the city code that prohibited panhandling at certain times and places and in certain manners. A requirement to get a permit to panhandle for more than five days in a row was also scrapped.
Threatening and harassing, as well as loitering, are still prohibited behaviors.
Councilman Chris Johnson went a slight step further than the original proposal by lowering the fines for loitering from a range of $250 to $1,000 to a range of $100 to $500.
He said he loosened the fines "out of good conscience" to relieve the burden on the poor.
"We certainly don't want businesses to be hassled by loiterers but I wanted us to stay in line with what is reasonable," Johnson said
City officials in November said Wilmington police had not been enforcing the panhandling regulations for at least a year.
City police issued 171 citations for loitering in 2019 and 146 in 2018.
Officials on Thursday did not have an estimate of how much they collected in fines from those citations. The current fiscal year budget lists the expected revenue from "criminal fines," which includes other violations, to be $203,000 — a sliver of the $9 million in total fines the city collects annually.
Council members Bud Freel and Linda Gray voted against loosening the restrictions.
Gray, a former judge and probation officer, said two men tapped on her car window asking for money when she was parked in downtown Wilmington that evening.
"It really affects the people coming into the city if they have people approaching them for money," she said. "I don't see where repealing this will help the general public."
The measures do not prevent Wilmington authorities from seeking those who are charged with low-level offenses such as loitering or aggressive panhandling to be banned from the city or the downtown business area as a condition of their release on bail.
That practice, reported by The News Journal in 2018, was said by the Department of Justice to be unconstitutional in 2014 but is defended by Purzycki and Police Chief Robert Tracy.
Jeanne Kuang covers Wilmington for The News Journal. Contact her at email@example.com or (302) 324-2476.