Sarasota County's proposed panhandling ordinance could be far-reaching

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SARASOTA COUNTY -  Panhandlers have become a familiar sight along Sarasota roadways and medians.  But county officials say its unsafe and they want it to stop.

"That really is scary because its a distraction for the motorist but for that individual it poses a danger as well, because if the motorist is distracted in anyway that individual could be injured, " says commissioner Carolyn Mason.

With that in mind, Sarasota County commissioners are considering a new panhandling ordinance that would prevent anyone from doing anything along the roadways that could distract a driver.

"The ordinance is a way to protect all of the public, its addressing anyone in these road ways exchanging anything with the driver," said Mason.

And when she says anyone, she means it.  The ordinance would even make it illegal for a driver to hand anything to someone on the street,  as well as prevent fund raising along the road ways. 

And according to representatives from the ACLU that's just the beginning.  "We're not talking about just panhandling here, we're talking about political activity.  In this country everyone has a right to go out and protest in the city or county street or sidewalk these regulations are going to interfere with that consitutional right," said Michael Barfield, chair of the Sarasota chapter of ACLU Legal Panel.

He says if passed, the ordinance would also restrict sign holders advertising for business. "There's a definition that walking can be construed as interfering with traffic.  We think that ridiculous and over broad.  Their also trying to create a buffer zone of four feet from the roadway, and sidewalks can not be restricted."

But despite the broad reach of the proposed ordinance, Barfield is convinced its purpose is to target the homeless.  "The only people that have been cited under that provision before is homeless people.  Commercial solicitation for gym memberships, cash for gold, pizza; they have never been cited, so we think it speaks volumes," add Barfield.

The ordinance is still in the drafting stage.  Officials say the county attorney will present the final draft of the law in the coming weeks.  After that, there will be a public hearing and then the final vote.