LOWELL -- Responding to scrutiny from the American Civil Liberties Union, the City Council Tuesday night revised a downtown panhandling ordinance so that it targets "aggressive" solicitations exclusively.
The amended ordinance, approved by a unanimous vote, makes clear the city is now focused primarily on targeting aggressive panhandling in the downtown historic district, while not trying to eliminate all solicitations. The original law was passed in November.
"The ordinance is not intended to limit any persons from exercising their constitutional right to solicit funds, picket, protest or engage in any other constitutionally protected activities," it states.
Councilors Rita Mercier and Corey Belanger were adamant in support of the tighter focus, saying it will protect downtown businesses.
"When we look at the big picture, we find there are people who try to get money by standing in front of businesses," Mercier said. "That deters people from going into those businesses."
Panhandling in an "aggressive manner" is defined in the amended ordinance in a variety of ways, including:
* Continuing to engage in panhandling toward a person after the person has given a negative response to such soliciting.
* Intentionally touching or causing physical contact with another person or their property without that person's consent.
* Intentionally blocking or interfering with the safe or free passage of a pedestrian or vehicle by any means.
* Panhandling in a group of two or more persons in an intimidating fashion.
* Panhandling within 20 feet of the entrance to, or parking area, of any bank, ATM, check-cashing business, garage, mass-transportation facility or stop, public restroom, pay phone, theater or any outdoor seating of a business.
Violators are subject to arrest. Each offense is punishable by a $50 fine. The Police Department can also issue noncriminal dispositions with a $50 penalty per violation. Those penalties would remain in effect.
The revised ordinance also eliminates the exemption to the law for nonprofits, civic or benevolent organizations, as described in Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code.
The City Council voted 6-2 in November to approve the original ordinance, with then-Councilors Vesna Nuon and Joseph Mendonca opposed, and then-Mayor Patrick Murphy absent.