Council Seeks to Curb Panhandlers, Graffiti Vandals

The Baltimore County Council discussed changes to panhandling and graffiti laws and plans to designate parts of three Woodlawn business parks as an enterprise zone.

Illegal panhandlers and graffiti vandals, beware. The Baltimore County Council is hoping to get tougher on people who beg for money or spray paint on buildings.

At its work session on Tuesday, the council discussed two bills that seek to change current laws governing panhandling on county roads and penalties for possessing spray paint cans with the intent to deface property.

The sponsors of both bills said Tuesday the intent is to limit panhandling on state roads in the county and to deter graffiti damage to businesses.

It is unclear how the changes would improve enforcement, considering the existing laws appear to have been carried out on a limited basis, if at all. The council is scheduled to vote on the changes on Monday.

Todd Huff, a Republican who represents the 3rd District, said at the work session that his panhandling bill would amend a county law passed in 2006 to include language expanding the definition of the practice detailed by a 2009 state law.

The amendments in Huff's bill would make it clear that groups or individuals who want to panhandle on state roads would need to obtain a county permit. They now  need permits only to panhandle on county roads. The bill also expands the law to include road shoulders, as defined by state law.

Huff said the changes are needed to allow county police to enforce the portion of the law passed by the state.

"That's why we're having panhandler issues on [state] roadways—because police won't enforce it," Huff said. "This will help our police officers clean up our streets."

County enforcement of the law has been spotty.

In 2006, the council passed the law making panhandling without a permit a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine. But the law wasn't enforced by code enforcement officers, and less than a year later was changed to make it a criminal offense enforced by the police department.

The county issues a few dozen permits, mostly to nonprofit organizations, each year.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been critical of the county's attempt to limit panhandling by homeless people but no lawsuits have been filed since the law was enacted.

The county has issued 55 permits to solicit donations from intersections in the county during the current fiscal year that began July 1, said Ellen Kobler, a county spokeswoman.

It is not clear how many citations, if any, have been written by police. Previously, the police department has said it doesn't track such citations.

A county spokesperson was unable to immediately determine if police now track these citations and if any have been issued. It is also unclear if the county has collected any fines for the citations.

The council also is expected to vote next week on a bill that would double the penalty for anyone found carrying a spray paint can with the "intent to deface, injure, damage or unlawfully apply paint to another person's property without consent," documents state.

"Graffiti causes a lot of damage to businesses, is an eyesore and is a hidden tax on businesses," said 5th District Republican Councilman David Marks, who is sponsoring the bill along with 6th District Democratic Councilwoman Cathy Bevins.

Marks said the idea to increase the penalty came from a review of other urban counties.

Currently, the violation for such an infraction in the county is a fine of $500 or 90 days in jail or both.

State law prohibits the willful and malicious destruction or defacing of property. Penalties include a fine of $2,500 or three years in jail or both for property damages of more than $500. The fine and jail time drop to $500 and or 60 days in jail for damages under $500.

Councilman Ken Oliver, a Democrat who represents the 4th District, asked Marks and Bevins for the number of citations or fines under the current law.

Both said they were not able to get information about the number of people fined or arrested under the current law.

"If we don't have any dollar amounts and we don't know how many people have been captured, why are we going to increase it to $1,000?" Oliver asked.

Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr., a Democrat who represents the 7th district, said the increased fines could help prevent vandalism.

"It seems to me, councilman, that this would serve as a deterrent," Olszewski said. "If you increase the fine, someone will think twice about it. But I agree with you that until we start taking the issue very seriously and catching the individuals that are doing it and give them a stiff penalty, maybe even some jail time, they're going to continue to do it."

Oliver was unmoved and said that while he wouldn't necessarily vote against the bill, he was not convinced an increased fine would make a difference.

"It's not a deterrent if we don't enforce it," Oliver said after Tuesday's meeting.

The council is also being asked to consider:

  • Designating nearly 230 acres of industrial zoned land in Woodlawn as an enterprise zone. (More at Pikesville Patch.)
  • Several land acquisitions to expand roads, including the New Forge Road extension in Perry Hall, the widening of Owings Mills Boulevard, and widening of Rolling Road between Orchard Avenue and Liberty Road in the Woodlawn area.
  • Extension of supplemental death benefits to county volunteer firefighters who die in the line of duty. The benefit would apply to volunteers who were once part of the county retirement system and have 15 years of service but have not yet drawn their benefits.  The bill provides the spouse with 2 percent per year of service multiplied by the number of years the volunteer had in the county pension system.


This story was updated to correct the death benefit to volunteer fire fighers who die in the line of duty.

Jen Przydzial March 02, 2011 at 01:21 AM
I didn't see a difference in 2006 with panhandlers and I doubt residents will see a difference if this passes. I sporadically would roll down my window and ask panhandlers if they had a permit. They just looked at me like I had two heads. Consequently, I am not sure what the law is in Howard County, but I have seen police offers remove panhandlers from county roads.
Stan Modjesky March 02, 2011 at 03:23 AM
How exactly can the county outlaw panhandling and then establish a process for permits to do exactly the same thing, under the name of fund-raising for some activity? What's the difference between someone begging for money to get a bottle of MD20/20 and someone doing a fill-the-boot for the local VFD? Both are impeding traffic and potentially causing a hazard. This is a little like saying the speed limits are inviolable, unless you are in a hurry to get home and pee.
Dan Fendlay March 02, 2011 at 04:36 AM
Stan, I couldn't agree more! The law makes no sense, I do not think any pan handling should be allowed since it is dangerous and probably not the best way to raise money.
James Smith March 02, 2011 at 12:22 PM
You cant enforce "intent". Unless you see the person spray painting on a building, fence, ect., how do you know intent. You are not in the mind of the person. It is unenforceable. A person/kid walking down the street with spray paint, is he going to paint on a building illegally, or going home to paint his bike or school project. Also, a kid that is planning on doing graffiti, is not going to look up the fine on the internet or newspaper, and then say that they will not do it because the fine is too much.
Stan Modjesky March 02, 2011 at 02:41 PM
The council passed law regarding "bandit" signs, and the result was that there are more of them than ever.
Stan Modjesky March 02, 2011 at 02:46 PM
I would prefer not having to deal with anyone approaching my car at an intersection, or even being their futzing around for any reason. This includes not only panhandlers, but fundraisers legitimized by permit, people selling Sunday papers, bottled water, and those vaguely threatening bean pie vendors. But I think the real danger is in the assumption that one class of person will be permitted to do something that another class of person is prohibited from doing. There is far too much of this in society as things stand. To say nothing of the unintended consequences. Let's say a precinct commander orders his cops to be aggressive about removing panhandlers. That enforcement effort will do nothing but make the intersections more complex and dangerous.
Stan Modjesky March 02, 2011 at 02:52 PM
James, aren't hate-crime laws a matter of enforcing intent? I find it hard to think those laws would stand up to a SCOTUS challenge, although with the current makeup of the court anything is possible. Your second point brilliantly illustrates the unreal thinking of legislators. Most criminals do not perform a risk/benefit analysis before setting out to do their activity, unless the risk is huge and obvious. Someone might decide not to rob a store where there is a high probability they will be facing someone who is armed, because that's an immediate threat. But very few crooks are likely to consider the (shall we say) administrative kind of penalties.
Richard Hiteshew March 02, 2011 at 03:01 PM
Ok, so our overworked poliuce force arrests a panhandler, prosecutes him/her, the judge imposes the maximum fine. Where are they going to get the money to pay the fine? That's easy; go beg for it. Instead of having a sign that says "I am homeless" it can now read "Help me pay my fine"..... God Bless!
Stan Modjesky March 02, 2011 at 03:34 PM
I agree with most of what you've said, but you lost me at "overworked."
Richard Hiteshew March 02, 2011 at 04:42 PM
Tongue in cheek....but seriously, can't county officials find something better for our county police to do?
Tom Daggett March 02, 2011 at 05:04 PM
Yes, they can set up elaborate sting operations and raid private clubs to bust up a big 5-man, $65 poker game.
Stan Modjesky March 02, 2011 at 05:09 PM
Good question Richard. Especially since they claim they are so overworked that they can no longer send an officer to investigate an attempted auto theft. Two or three times someone tried to get into my mom's car by yanking outward on the top of a door. Wrecked the door, broke a window... She called 911 and they gave her a "report number" by telephone, said that policy was they no longer dispatched a cop for these calls. In my opinion, that's an open invitation to insurance fraud, but hey...
Mike Pierce March 02, 2011 at 09:57 PM
If the Council is serious about limiting panhandling in the roadway, they would simply outlaw the practice, as it is prohibited in every county around us. Bill 87-10 last year that enacting the regulation started out saying how dangerous it is for drivers and the panhandlers, and then went on to explain how the County issues permits for anyone doing it. Further, the process for enforcement is a joke and unworkable. Rather than charging the Police with enforcement, the current law (unchanged by this bill) leaves it to the Department of Permits, Approvals, and Inspections (i.e. Code Enforcement) to enforce. If I call in a complaint about a panhander, Code Enforcement will get out within 2 days to check it out. In fact, there is nothing they can do since they do not have arrest powers. They can't even demand to see someone's ID.
Stan Modjesky March 02, 2011 at 10:32 PM
It would be interesting to know what proportion of the county code cannot realistically be enforced.
Stan Modjesky March 03, 2011 at 03:32 AM
Ed, this was maybe 3 or 4 years ago, and things may be different now. I recall that Mom asked for an officer to be dispatched and they refused. This was in the North Point precinct. Someone broke a back window of a van I had about ten years ago. I phoned it in and an officer came. When I looked in back, it appeared that all they had stolen was a broken computer monitor and some old coats that were headed to the Goodwill. The cop was there for maybe 20 minutes taking the report and I THOUGHT looking over the scene. It was only later that I learned the thieves had first attempted to steal the van itself, breaking the ignition lock, then just took the stuff in the back as compensation for their efforts. I tried calling the officer to have this added to the report, and my calls were never returned.
sid March 03, 2011 at 06:53 AM
The ACLU is always on the wrong side of the issue. Panhandlers are a problem they encourage crime by saying anything goes.
Stan Modjesky March 03, 2011 at 03:43 PM
How did the ACLU find its way into this discussion? I have mixed feelings about panhandlers, because anything you say about a panhandler also applies to street-corner musicians, hot dog vendors, balloon-sellers, and quirky people simply holding a sign like Rudy Handel, who for years stood outside the Baltimore Sun building with a sign reading "Sun Lies." These people add to the richness of the urban scene. There's only a problem when they are a hazard, like panhandlers who aggresively pursue people. On the other hand, nobody has any business standing on a narrow lane divider and obstructing traffic.
sid March 04, 2011 at 05:35 AM
ACLU was mentioned in the article.
bob May 02, 2011 at 04:55 PM
I don't where some of you people come from, These people out on street corners are just asking for a little help and you want to kick them then there down. God bless you for having such a good life that you have never had to ask for a little help. The homeless people need our help and you cheep bastards should help them as much as you can. The system in this country is not fair, they let an ilegal into this country an give the a place to live and food to eat, but you cant give a buck to someone down on his luck.
Stan Modjesky May 02, 2011 at 06:47 PM
Gosh bob, did you read any of the comments? I see only one comment that says anything derogatory about panhandlers. And I'm genuinely curious why you chose to respond to this thread two months after the last person commented... It's dangerous for people to stand in intersections. Can you accept that simple fact? When we have people out doing road work they wear reflective clothing, put out all kinds of signs, lights, cones, and now even "attenuator" trailers intended to absorb the impact of a car doing 60 mph. Last thing I would want to see would be to have someone already down on his luck get clobbered by a car, and it really could happen.
Stan Modjesky May 02, 2011 at 06:49 PM
How I feel about panhandlers depends on the panhandler. When I see a guy who looks like he's 35 claiming to be a Vietnam vet, that really burns me. (Youngest possible vet who was in-country in VN would be 53 years old.) When I see someone with a "God bless you" sign cursing those who don't contribute, I wonder about his sincerity. I used to see a guy, all over the city, wearing a ratty field jacket and carrying a 1-gallon gas can, panhandling for gas money. As if someone who ran out of gas would actually have an empty can on hand. I've also seen some people who look genuinely hurt, and whose condition looks worse with the passage of time. Speaking only for myself, I contribute to the Order of the Purple Heart, the USO, and a couple of other veterans' service organizations. There are plenty of people panhandling who don't get the benefit of these organizations because they can't comply with a few simple rules, such as sobriety, not carrying weapons, etc. When you give money to someone like that, are you helping them or enabling their destructive behavior?
Beth May 05, 2011 at 12:18 PM
Was this law passed? Stan maybe you'll know? Very interesting discussion.... I like the point that we shouldn't allow "permits" if the rationale to ban it is that it's not safe. I think this will greatly increase property values if it's enforced. I know Rolling Road & 40 has someone on every corner now.
Graham November 02, 2011 at 08:49 PM
Thank you Mr Hiteshaw.


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