A woman in a vehicle in the parking lot of Walmart gives money to a man on Thursday in Hermiston.

The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to free speech, and that includes their right to ask strangers for money.

After receiving complaints about “aggressive” panhandling, the Hermiston Police Department is reminding people that cities are constitutionally prohibited from banning panhandling. The law treats individuals asking for money for themselves the same as it treats a Salvation Army bell-ringer or firefighter collecting donations for charity.

Police Chief Jason Edmiston said there are some people who want to see heavy-handed enforcement to stop panhandling altogether and others who think it isn’t the government’s place to interfere with a person’s right to ask for money. Police try to walk a fine line between not interfering with free speech rights, while also addressing instances where people are being harassed or made to feel unsafe.

“It’s tricky,” he said.

While anyone can stand on a public sidewalk with a sign. If someone is causing a disruption on private property, such as a store’s parking lot, the business does have the option to contact law enforcement and trespass the person from their property.

“There needs to be some kind of incident or incidents to justify that,” he said. “It’s all based on what’s reasonable.”

The city also has an ordinance that prohibits people from blocking a public sidewalk, so if a panhandler’s possessions are piled up on the sidewalk next to them police can ask them to move.

While cities’ blanket bans on panhandling (or other kinds of “charitable solicitations”) have been struck down in court, many cities do have ordinances that address certain behaviors associated with panhandling. In 2015, for example, Umatilla passed an ordinance banning the transfer of money or other items between a vehicle in a highway’s lane of travel and a pedestrian. While people are still legally allowed to stand on the side of the highway and ask for money, anyone who wants to donate must find somewhere to legally park their vehicle first.

Edmiston said there has been a definite increase in panhandling recently in Hermiston, particularly with panhandlers who aggressively approach people. In some cases, he said, the people have a “sob story” that police know for a fact isn’t true, such as a person with no children asking for money for a hotel room for their children. He said the department has had some conversations about whether such a false story constitutes “theft by deception,” but have not chosen to charge anyone so far.

There are some people who truly do need the money and are being honest about their circumstances, Edmiston said, but giving to the organizations that serve the area’s low-income and homeless populations is generally a better way to make sure the money is used efficiently to help people in real need. If people do want to give money or food to someone “in the field,” he said, they should find somewhere safe and well-lit to do so.

“I would just say, be smart,” he said.

News Editor

Hermiston Herald news editor and reporter covering city government and economic development in Hermiston, Umatilla, Stanfield and Echo.

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