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Federal Way's aggressive begging law faces revision

Federal Way city attorney Pat Richardson presented an amendment to the city’s aggressive begging code.

“This really is a technical fix on this,” Richardson said during a recent meeting of the three-member Parks and Recreation, Human Services and Public Safety Council committee. “Our aggressive begging ordinance was appealed, and in June, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that parts of it were unconstitutional because it was focusing more on the aggressive begging aspect of it, which is a protected First Amendment right, as opposed to the intent to intimidate and impede traffic.”

Throughout the country, aggressive begging or panhandling laws are often overturned due to free speech issues. According to legal experts and judges, the act of begging is protected under the First Amendment as an exercise of free speech.

According to Richardson, three defendants who filed suit against the city made such an argument, and the King County Superior Court judge agreed, leading to the revisions presented last Tuesday.

Richardson said the original ordinance was modeled after Tacoma’s ordinance, which has not been legally challenged. After Federal Way’s ordinance was overturned in June, Richardson said the city then turned to Seattle’s ordinance as a model.

“We looked at the city of Seattle and theirs has been reviewed and withstood the constitutional challenge,” she said.

Committee chair and Federal Way City Councilwoman Jeanne Burbidge expressed some concerns over safety issues that may be left unaddressed by the revision, alluding to some well-known charity drives that could be construed as aggressive begging.

“One of the things that came up with this is some of the fundraising efforts that certain groups have,” she said. “They deliberately go out into traffic that’s stopped at a light and ask for donations.”

Richardson said she will leave the application of the revised code to the discretion of the prosecuting attorneys who work on behalf of Federal Way. She also indicated that the revised ordinance focuses more intently on the impeding of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Continuing with the thread of the conversation, committee member and City Councilman Roger Freeman posed another hypothetical situation and how it might be viewed under the revised code: “Now if they walk in the street and they don’t ask, but they happen to hold out their boot and people just happen to put money in their boot, I guess that’s not begging,” he said.

“It’s the act of impeding that’s the criminal act, not the fact that you happen to have a boot in your hand,” Richardson said in response.

In a post meeting email exchange, Richardson explained further what led to the need for the revisions.

“I spoke with the prosecutor handling the matter and learned that the basis for the ruling was that application, based upon the language, was too broadly applied,” she wrote. “The intent in passing the ordinance was to prevent impeding traffic and to protect the safety of motorists and pedestrians. ... The language in the proposed amendment narrows the application and focuses more directly on the intent of the individual.”

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