Penal Code 647(c) | Aggressive Panhandling

Penal Code 647(c) | Aggressive Panhandling

Panhandling, or asking strangers for money in public, is a complex issue. On one hand, many see it as a reflection of larger societal problems like poverty, mental illness, and addiction. On the other hand, aggressive panhandling can make people feel harassed or intimidated. Balancing these perspectives is difficult, but California has tried through Penal Code 647(c).

What is Penal Code 647(c)?

In California, Penal Code 647(c) is the law that prohibits “aggressive panhandling” in public places. Specifically, it says that you can’t do things like:

  • Touch someone without their consent while asking for money
  • Block someone’s path to ask for money
  • Follow closely behind someone to ask for money after they’ve said no
  • Say threatening things, use violent gestures, or shout to intimidate someone into giving money

So in essence, it targets panhandling behaviors that are harassing, threatening, or dangerous. Simply asking for money is not illegal under 647(c). There has to be some “aggressive” behavior involved.

What Are the Penalties?

Violating Penal Code 647(c) is a misdemeanor offense. If convicted, penalties can include:

  • Up to 6 months in county jail
  • A fine of up to $1,000
  • Probation or community service

Penalties tend to increase for repeat offenses. Jail time is more likely if violence was involved. Fines help fund emergency shelters and other social services.

Why Was This Law Passed?

In the 1990s, there was a rise in aggressive panhandling reports in California. People felt threatened by the behaviors, and there were some violent incidents. So the state legislature passed 647(c) in 1995 to address these concerns. They wanted to deter aggressive tactics while still allowing peaceful panhandling.

Many other states have similar laws for the same reasons. Cities like San Francisco also passed local ordinances to restrict aggressive panhandling.

Does It Actually Reduce Panhandling?

Research on anti-panhandling laws shows mixed results. In some areas, arrests and complaints dropped after passing restrictions. But in others, there was little change. Enforcement is inconsistent, and many activities still fall into a legal gray area.

Critics argue the laws just criminalize homelessness without solving root causes. And peaceful panhandlers still feel targeted by police. Ultimately, poverty, housing costs, addiction and mental healthcare are bigger factors in panhandling trends.

What About Free Speech Issues?

The ACLU and other groups have challenged anti-panhandling laws as violations of free speech. But courts have largely upheld them as content-neutral, since they restrict conduct not speech. As long as they focus on aggressive behaviors, not the act of asking for money itself, most survive legal challenges.

Still, enforcement requires judgment of what’s aggressive, so there’s room for bias. And some laws have been struck down as overly broad when applied to peaceful panhandling.

Are There Any Defenses?

For a 647(c) charge, possible defenses include:

  • Mistaken identity – Argue you weren’t the person panhandling aggressively
  • False accusations – Challenge witnesses claiming you did those behaviors
  • First Amendment – Argue the law violates free speech if applied to peaceful panhandling
  • Unconstitutional vagueness – Challenge the law as too vague in defining “aggressive” conduct
  • Necessity – Argue you panhandled due to dire financial circumstances, not to harass
  • Mental illness – May apply if mental health issues contributed to your behavior

An experienced criminal defense lawyer can assess defenses and negotiate alternatives to jail like community service or counseling.

What About Panhandlers’ Rights?

While 647(c) targets aggressive tactics, panhandlers still have rights like:

  • Right to panhandle in public spaces peacefully
  • Right to decline searches without probable cause
  • Right to record police interactions
  • Right to ask if they’re free to leave interactions with police

They shouldn’t be targeted for looking homeless either. But enforcement often relies on discretion, so bias occurs.

What Can I Do If I Feel Harassed?

If you feel threatened or harassed by a panhandler:

  • Clearly say no and keep walking – don’t engage if you feel unsafe
  • Report specific behaviors to police if they seem illegal
  • Avoid stereotyping all panhandlers based on one interaction

But also consider: Are your reactions based on fear of poverty? Would you feel differently if they looked less destitute? Bias affects perceptions.

How Else Can We Address Panhandling?

While Penal Code 647(c) targets aggressive tactics, many argue we need more constructive solutions like:

  • More affordable housing, shelters, and mental health resources
  • Drug addiction and rehabilitation programs
  • Job training and placement assistance
  • Public bathrooms, water fountains, and hygiene services
  • Supportive interventions as alternatives to jail

Panhandling stems from larger systemic issues. Criminalizing poverty doesn’t address why people are so desperate. Prevention through social services and empathy may be better than punishment.