Auburn may change aggressive begging code because rest of code handles the problem

Guys walks onto a street, gums up traffic and yells at or threatens motorists to get them to hand over money.

Could be he’s out there under false pretenses.

Could be he’s exploiting a child to get that money.

For several years, Auburn has had a specific chapter of its code that makes aggressive begging like that a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and jail time.

During a work session Aug. 10 at City Hall, the Auburn City Council talked about cutting out its aggressive begging code entirely.

Not because the city no longer intends to do anything about aggressive begging, but because other chapters of the city code already cover this bad behavior, and that chapter is no longer needed.

Prompting this change is a recent Washington State Supreme Court decision that declared another Western Washington city’s prohibitions against begging at freeway ramps and major intersections were overbroad.

In light of that, the Auburn City Attorney’s office took a fresh look at the city code and determined that Auburn’s police and its prosecutor’s office could address that bad conduct using other mechanisms already in the code.

City Attorney Kendra Comeau said she took special care to make it clear: the city is not outlawing panhandling. Its sole aim is the egregious behavior sometimes associated with panhandling.

That is, just standing on the side of a road, perhaps in a public right of way asking for money is not criminal conduct, Comeau said. The criminal conduct would be endangering the life or safety of an individual.

“We have all these mechanisms already available, and we just want to make sure it’s clear that we are not citing or enforcing something where a vulnerable individual is just asking for money,” said Comeau. “We are not going to take them to jail because they’re panhandling.”

City council member Yolanda Trout-Manuel inquired about begging she’s seem time and again on the on-and-off ramps to Highway 18 and Auburn Way South.

Police Chief Dan O’Neil said that if it happens on Washington State Department of Transportation property like Highway 18, that’s the Washington State Patrol’s gig.

“When you’re out there on Highway 18 near Auburn Way South, one of the challenges is that this is a city ordinance, and we don’t have the ability to enforce that city ordinance on an off-ramp because it’s part of the freeway. In that situation, what we do is enforce the state law against disorderly conduct if they come out and interfere with the flow of vehicle traffic,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil said Auburn’s police officers use the law and its ordinances as a last alternative.

“A lot of times, when we’re dealing with folks out there that are on the side of the freeway, panhandling or engaging in what could be termed ‘aggressive begging,’ we’re trying to get them the resources they need or to get them to facilities where they could get help and get what they need instead of creating more of a burden by either arresting them or giving them a fine,” O’Neil said. “So, at the end of the day, we use enforcement action as a last resort. We’re more or less out there trying to solve our problem and keep them and our motoring citizens safe.”