Christiansburg replacing previous ordinance regarding panhandling

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) Panhandling is an issue the area is seeing more and more. Some towns are trying to stop it.

One town needs to redo its ordinance after their attorney deemed it illegal.

The previous code in Christiansburg said people couldn't hold any signs without permission. Thanks to a 2015 Supreme Court case dealing with free speech, the rule can no longer be enforced.

Christiansburg Town Attorney Theresa Fontana explained, "What the Supreme Court found was that if a ordinance or law is not content neutral, meaning that it singles out certain types of speech, it's presumptively unconstitutional."

Fontana instructed police to stop following this ordinance until she could design a new one.

"I've drafted a proposed ordinance, which is very narrowly tailored to prevent people from exchanging items with vehicles that are being operated in a travel lane," she said to Town Council.

She added, "If they're just holding a sign there and not entering the roadway or interacting with the drivers, there's nothing that we can do about that."

Other areas like Wytheville, Lynchburg, Danville and Salem also ban aggressive solicitation.

Roanoke did until this past September, and Blacksburg only outlaws blocking sidewalks.

There is a state law against walking down highways.

Michael Cooper has been panhandling in Blacksburg for nearly a year after losing his job, wife, house, brother and sister.

He said, "I use the money that I get from here to eat with and to stay in a motel room at night to get out of the weather."

He also said he doesn't understand why any community would ban what he does.

"I don't hardly see how you can prevent someone to ask for help," Cooper said. "I'm in a situation where I need help, how am I supposed to get it if I don't ask."

Christiansburg police admit even the new draft isn't an aggressive deterrent because it won't be an arrestable offense.

Chief of Police Mark Sisson said at Tuesday's Town Council meeting, "We can summons individuals for a violation and 15 minutes later we can summons them again. There are some state codes that allow us to charge under state code failure to obey order or continuing an unlawful act."

It's only a draft in Christiansburg, as it hasn't been approved by council yet.

But if passed, it wouldn't just be the person entering the street for a transaction or donation, including things like the Fireman's Fill the Boot Campaign. Drivers who stop in the road would also be summoned.