By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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LOVES PARK — The city will prohibit walking or standing in the median lanes that divide traffic as part of a new pedestrian safety ordinance approved last week by the City Council.
The new city code is intended to keep lanes of traffic clear as a safety precaution for both pedestrians and drivers, said Attorney Gino Galluzzo of AGHL Law, which represents the city.
“This is truly a public safety issue. There’s no other way around it,” he said. “At the end of the day, our streets are for travel and we have to preserve the safety for all the citizens.”
City Council members approved the ordinance unanimously.
Nowhere in the 900-plus word ordinance will you find the word “panhandlers,” or any variation of it, although the new rule would effectively prohibit the practice of walking along the medians or roadways to ask for money. That puts the city’s rule at odds with organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, which has fought to protect people’s right to panhandle under First Amendment protections.
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Local governments can’t expressly prohibit panhandling, a ruling that came down in January from a federal district court judge in Chicago. The judge struck down a state law that prohibited panhandling and ordered police to stop enforcing it.
Since then, panhandling has increased in the region, even prompting city and police officials in Rockford to publicly explain why the practice persists despite numerous complains.
“Recent court cases have been resoundingly clear that laws targeting panhandling violate the constitutional right to free speech,” said Rebecca Glenberg, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Illinois. “We do not know the motivation for this ordinance, but we have seen a number of jurisdictions try to replace panhandling ordinances with laws against ‘solicitation’ or ‘interaction’ or even ‘standing’ in places where panhandling was previously prohibited. These laws are also unconstitutional.”
Galluzzo said the law is not meant to apply just to panhandlers.
“It applies to anybody who’s in the street for any reason,” he said. “We’re trying to do what we can within the law to keep drivers and pedestrians safe. … We had to take action in order to make sure we maintain public safety.”
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There have been nine crashes involving pedestrians in Loves Park so far this year, including one fatality, according to the Loves Park Police Department. On June 2, a 48-year-old man was struck-and-killed in the 5700 block of Riverside Boulevard by a driver who fled the scene. In Rockford, there have been 11 fatal crashes involving pedestrians so far this year, according to Rockford police.
“When the government limits speech for ‘public safety’ reasons, they must be able to prove that there is a real safety issue, that the regulations actually will address the problem, and that the government actually considered alternatives that would not be as restrictive to speech,” Glenberg said. “Indeed, just last week, a federal appeals court struck down a similar ordinance in Albuquerque because the city could show none of those things.”
Loves Park’s ordinance falls under its general code of ordinances, meaning scofflaws could face fines up to $750. However, the city’s police department has not yet determined an approach to enforcement.
“It’s going to take a larger conversation with the city administration,” said Loves Park Police Deputy Chief Mike McCammond. “We may even reach out to neighboring jurisdictions, see how they’re handling it, and make a decision there.”