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Bill seeks to restrict panhandling in Arundel


From the heat of August to the chill of February, Larry Foster walks along the intersection of Ritchie Highway and Marley Glen carrying bins of Tootsie Rolls. He knocks on car doors and, as the drivers roll down their windows, he hands out candy and they hand him change.

Foster and other members of the Glen Burnie Council of the Knights of Columbus donate the money to special-education schools and nearby churches. Last year, they donated $13,000 to the Ruth Parker Eason School in Millersville.

Although Foster has good intentions, some local officials are concerned about the growing number of people raising money or panhandling on Anne Arundel County roadways.

Now Del. John R. Leopold, a Pasadena Republican, has introduced a bill that would allow the county to restrict soliciting along roadways and median strips to members of certain groups who are at least 18 years old and have paid a fee of up to $100 for a county-issued license. The fee could be waived provided the group can show it cannot afford to pay.

Police officers can ask solicitors to leave a median if they deem it unsafe. Four other counties -- Charles, Harford, Prince George's and Washington -- have specific laws restricting solicitation on public roads.

Frederick County is considering similar restrictions. And a more sweeping bill by Del. David G. Boschert, a Crownsville Republican, would ban all solicitation on medians or along state highways.

Leopold said his bill is a compromise that would regulate a practice that is generating increasing complaints. He said he has no problems with legitimate fund-raising efforts by civic groups, but wants to discourage panhandling and fraudulent solicitation.

"Many citizens are intimidated or annoyed by people knocking on their windows and expressing distaste at not receiving funds from solicitation," he said.

Another goal, he said, is protecting the safety of solicitors and motorists.

"There are many ways to raise money, and you want to encourage ways to raise money that do not compromise safety," said Leopold, adding that student solicitors would be permitted to ask for donations in parking lots and at grocery stores.

The bill is backed by the Anne Arundel County delegation and was discussed Tuesday by the House Environmental Matters Committee. The Anne Arundel County Council would have to approve the measure, but several members said they support the bill.

However, some argued that the bill could make it more difficult for small civic groups to raise money.

Marc Ellison, a solicitor for the American Rescue Workers in Baltimore, said the fee would hurt his church's ability to run its homeless shelter, soup kitchen and thrift store.

While canvassing the corner of McKinsey Road and Ritchie Highway in Severna Park, church members usually collect about $100 per person each day, he said. With about $5,000 in bills each month, it leaves little else for materials, he said.

"We really depend on solicitation to fund our programs," Ellison said. The fee "would hurt us. Each dollar taken from a nonprofit organization hurts."

Others argued that the real purpose of the bill is to ban panhandling.

"They cannot permit solicitation to certain groups, excluding the homeless or anyone else," said David Rocah, staff attorney for the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union.

"The First Amendment doesn't say you have a right of speech as long as you can pay a fee or convince some government bureaucrat to lower it," he said.

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