Council repeals panhandling rule

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By Tris DeRoma

The Los Alamos County Council repealed its Safety in Public Places ordinance Tuesday after concerns were raised by the American Civil Liberties Union New Mexico that the law violated a person’s right to free speech under the First Amendment.

Assistant county attorney Kevin Powers said the 2015 law was passed because of aggressive panhandling in Albuquerque, and the county council was looking for a way to get ahead of the problem. 

“We needed something on the books to address the problem that may come,” Powers said. “Similar to adult entertainment facilities, you want to have something on the books before they get here, otherwise you’re unable to regulate them in the appropriate manner.” 

The county received a letter in August from the organization about its concerns. In August, the council placed a moratorium on the ordinance pending a review by the county attorney’s office. 

“We do recognize there are some First Amendment issues with our current ordinance and based on discussions, the ordinance does need to be repealed or replaced,” Los Alamos County Attorney J. Alvin Leaphart said Tuesday. “At this point, we recommend that we repeal the ordinance.” 

Leaphart further stated that there are local laws already that protect residents from aggressive panhandlers who victimize passersby in any way, vocally or physically.

“If it later becomes apparent that there is some aggressive panhandling or some sort of problem in Los Alamos County that isn’t addressed by current laws on books, we can revisit the issue at that time.”

Los Alamos County Vice Chair Christine Chandler, who was not on the council at the time the panhandling ordinance was passed, said there was a lesson the council and future councils can learn from, and that is not to pass laws motivated by knee-jerk reactions to issues happening in other communities.

“I have lived here for 25 years. I’ve never had a panhandler come up to me, never,” Chandler said. “I guess the lesson here is whenever you get a law or an ordinance like this, is ask yourself is it a problem? Obviously (in Los Alamos) it is not a problem. Just creating criminal laws, which is exactly what this is, to satisfy some sort of perceived thing going on in Albuquerque… If I recall at the time, the ACLU was all over that at the time. Why that wasn’t raised in front of the council previous to me I do not know.”

The seven-member council voted unanimously to repeal the ordinance. 

ACLU NM was glad to hear the council voted to repeal the ordinance. 

“We’re delighted that the county council decided the way they did and that it was a unanimous decision,”  ACLU NM Executive Director Peter Simonson said. “We’re thankful that they agreed with us, that there are better ways to address homelessness in their community than limiting people’s ability to ask for help on street corners and public sidewalks.”