Staff attorneys have told the St. Louis County Council that vagrancy and panhandling ordinances need to be updated, because the ones currently on the books might be unconstitutional.
But the council hasn’t agreed on how to proceed.
Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, has proposed repealing the problematic vagrancy ordinances altogether. She drafted legislation to strike them down at the request of the county council attorney’s office.
Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-South County, introduced a competing plan this week. He wants to rewrite the vagrancy regulations so they still deter panhandling but don’t run afoul of the law.
The council is expected to discuss its vagrancy ordinances at a committee meeting next week. Trakas’ proposal failed to get enough votes of support on the Democratically controlled council to pass Tuesday night. Clancy said the issue needs further debate before another vote is taken.
St. Louis County may have no choice but to change its vagrancy ordinance. It is being sued by Robert Fernandez, who has been ticketed dozens of times for asking for money at the intersection of Lindbergh Boulevard and Interstate 55. The case is set to go to trial in early April.
Clancy said she’s not sure if the staff recommendation to repeal the vagrancy laws is a result of the lawsuit, but Fernandez’s attorney, Bevis Schock, believes the two are related. The county counsel, Beth Orwick, said she could not comment on pending litigation or legislation.
Listen to "St. Louis on the Air" host Sarah Fenkse's conversation with attorney Bevis Schock:
The county’s current ordinance declares “a person shall not be a vagrant.” It defines a vagrant in a variety of ways including:
- As a person without any “visible means of support who may be loitering around houses of ill-fame, gambling houses, or places where liquor is sold or drunk.”
- As a person “who shall be engaged in practicing any trick or device to procure money or other thing of value.”
- As an “able-bodied man who shall neglect or refuse to provide for the support of his family.”
- As a person “tramping or wandering around from place to place without any visible means of support.”
Among his dozens of charges, Fernandez has been cited for violating the vagrancy ordinance eight times since October 2017, according to court documents. A vagrancy conviction can carry a fine of up to $1,000 and imprisonment up to one year, according to Fernandez’s lawsuit.
“The vagrancy prohibition … criminalizes the statuses of being homeless, poor and unemployed,” reads Fernandez’s legal claim in court documents.
A judge early on in the lawsuit proceedings told the county staff that vagrancy regulations were likely unconstitutional and should be taken off the books, Schock said. The Missouri Supreme Court has already thrown out similar vagrancy ordinances, according to the lawsuit.
Clancy’s initial bill would have struck down all of this language and not replaced it with anything new, but she’s open to a discussion with Trakas and other members of the council who want a substitute, she said.
“This is an issue that’s really delicate,” Clancy said. “There’s a fine line when it comes to vagrancy ordinances, and I want to make sure people’s civil rights are protected, while also protecting the interest of other people in the community as well.”
Trakas’ proposal that failed on Tuesday night would have prohibited “aggressive solicitation.” It would have allowed the police to ticket individuals who approach or speak to someone in a way that causes “a reasonable person to fear bodily harm.” A person would also not be able to solicit a person in a vehicle or block a roadway to solicit, according to a draft of the ordinance. Trakas included exemptions for people who are protesting or picketing.
Trakas described the former ordinance as “vague” and “poorly described” but said his new ordinance should pass constitutional muster. It punishes behavior, rather than the housing and employment status of a person, he said.
Trakas said he is not interested in seeing people arrested and thrown in jail for panhandling, but he does think the police need tools to make sure “people move along” when they are bothering others.
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