SELECTMEN NEWS: Board Decides Not To Create Panhandling Bylaw Due To Legal Concerns

WILMINGTON, MA — At Monday’s Wilmington Selectmen Meeting, the Board discussed the feasibility of creating a bylaw to ban panhandling in town.  The discussion, however, didn’t get very far.

Police Chief Michael Begonis and Town Counsel John Foskett both advised Selectmen against developing any such bylaw.

Town Manager Jeff Hull summarized Town Counsel John Foskett’s findings, which argued against establishing a panhandling bylaw in light of a couple of recent cases in which no-panhandling ordinances in Lowell and Worcester were invalidated by federal judges in Massachusetts.  Foskett also pointed out that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been aggressive in fighting anti-panhandling bylaws and ordinances.

Police Chief Michael Begonis, who appeared in front of the board, suggested a panhandling bylaw in Wilmington would not be prudent, noting the First Circuit Court has found that the right to solicit for money is covered on the first amendment as freedom of speech.

Begonis noted, however, that there are existing mechanisms in place that the Wilmington Police Department can utilize to eliminate panhandling in certain circumstances.  If, for example, a panhandler becomes a problem over time, accosting folks, the property owner can establish a no trespass order.

“I invite residents, if they have any questions or concerns regarding panhandling, to reach out to the Police Department,” said Begonis.  “[The Police] don’t mind going down and having a conversation with [panhandlers].  It gives us an opportunity to engage with them and offer them help.”

“I wish we had something with a little more teeth, but I do understand and I respect the courts,” responded Selectman Mike McCoy, who requested the Chief look into the possibly of a panhandling bylaw back in September.

“The U.S. District Court of Massachusetts ruled that the act of panhandling is protected under the first amendment as Free Speech.  That would have never occurred to me [before doing researching on the topic],” admitted Selectman Chair Mike Champoux.

“I get why there’s a desire to minimize the presence of panhandlers or homeless folks from being at the Plaza, making shoppers feel uncomfortable or unsafe.  It doesn’t seem fitting with the type of community we are,” said Selectman Chair Mike Champoux.  “On the other hand, I think there’s merit to the idea of us being aware of and sensitive to the issues of the underprivileged and those that are in need.”

Watch the meeting below, courtesy of Wilmington Community Television.  Discussion on the panhandle bylaw runs from 42:30 to 49:45.

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