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Panhandler wins first contested case against Federal Way begging law

Misdemeanor charges were dropped during a court trial Nov. 5 in Federal Way’s first contested aggressive begging case.

After listening to testimony from officer Arron LuBrant, Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Michael Morgan intervened in the jury trial and dismissed the charges against transient Douglas Henness, also known among his peers as Thadius.

Morgan ruled that while Henness held a sign, sat in proximity of a roadway and accepted donations from a motorist when summoned, he was not aggressively begging. The city failed to prove its case, Morgan said.

In court, Henness looked on patiently with attorney Stephen Johnson at his side. LuBrant testified seeing Henness sitting a few feet from the sidewalk and holding a sign near 1st Avenue South and Southwest Campus Drive on March 22. LuBrant passed Henness once and came back to the area approximately an hour later.

At that time, LuBrant witnessed Henness get up from his perch and approach a car idling at a red light, LuBrant said. He saw Henness accept something from the vehicle’s passenger, then return to his position. This prompted the officer to approach Henness and explain the city’s law, LuBrant said.

“He didn’t really agree with me,” LuBrant said in court. “He didn’t want to listen.”

Henness was cited with aggressive begging.

City’s tougher ordinance

Federal Way passed amendments to its aggressive begging ordinance Feb. 19.

The law department spent a significant amount of time crafting the law, which the city believes will allow some control over panhandling but not infringe upon anyone’s First Amendment rights.

Among other things, the law makes it illegal to hold a sign or beg in a way meant to solicit money, goods or other valuables from motorists. The law also prohibits begging in a manner that is aggressive, defined by the ordinance as the following: Using intimidation, providing false or misleading information, utilizing a method that threatens the safety of a person or property, impeding traffic, exploiting children, attempting to provide services in return for valuables or begging near an automated teller machine, at a public transportation stop, on public transportation or on private or public property of which the owner has asked the beggar not to engage in his or her actions.

The amendments were needed to ensure pedestrian and traffic safety, the city council ruled in February.

The ordinance does not list specific fines or jail time for violators; that would be determined by a judge.

Henness prevails:

Douglas Henness won his case primarily because of how the ordinance was written, said his attorney, Stephen Johnson. The ordinance implies a panhandler must engage in a proactive manner to secure donations, he said.

“The entire tone of the city’s ordinance is of someone doing something proactive, and what Mr. Henness was doing was just sitting there,” Johnson said. “There was no intentional activity on Mr. Henness’ part to quote ‘aggressively beg.’”

It cannot be proven the sign was directed at traffic, Johnson said. Henness was not impeding traffic because the stop light was red and the vehicle he approached was already at rest, Johnson said.

Henness said he understands the city’s desire to curb panhandling that threatens or endangers citizens, but insists he does not partake in such actions. Henness said he is happy to have the ordeal behind him.

Effectiveness of the law:

To date, 11 aggressive begging cases have been filed. Three defendants have pleaded guilty, five cases were dismissed and three are pending a court date, city spokeswoman Linda Farmer said.

An unknown number of beggars have been issued warnings for their actions but have not been accused of committing a misdemeanor, Farmer said.

The city does not agree with Judge Morgan’s decision and is still considering an appeal, city prosecutor Ryan Call said. The city does not have enough information yet to determine if the ordinance is working effectively, Call said.

“We are still experimenting with it,” Call said.

The police department has received positive feedback from citizens on the ordinance, police spokeswoman Cathy Schrock said. A decrease in panhandling has been noticed, she said.

“We can say we feel there has been a very positive impact on panhandling since the inception of the ordinance,” she said.

Initially, officers conducted an aggressive effort to let panhandlers know their actions are not allowed in Federal Way, she said.

“We contacted every panhandler we could find and said this is your official notice,” Schrock said.

Johnson suspects the city may take another look at its aggressive begging ordinance after Henness’ case. Aggressive begging is too broadly defined, he said.

“Maybe what the city can do is look at this ordinance and tone it back a little bit,” Johnson said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@federalwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565

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