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Manteca makes rights of some superior to rights of others

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POSTED June 4, 2014 12:58 a.m.

I admire the Manteca Firefighters Association and their dedication to raising funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

I abhor aggressive panhandlers – sometimes the true homeless, other times those preying on the goodwill of others.

But just because I like one and not the other doesn’t mean their constitutional rights should be different.

This past Saturday morning members of the Manteca Firefighters Association dressed in partial turnout gear were manning the medians and sidewalks within 100 feet of the South Main and Industrial Park Drive/Mission Ridge Drive intersection for the annual Fill the Boot effort for the MDA.

They had signs placed near the intersection saying what they were doing. They never approached a vehicle without being motioned over. And they made every effort not to impede traffic. No one in the vehicles passing through the intersection seemed angry or frustrated. Many waved and smiled.

Had the firefighters been panhandlers instead, few, if any motorists would have shown them any kind of love.

No problem. It’s a free country.

However, there is one not-so-tiny issue. What the firefighters did Saturday was legal and what panhandlers often do year round is illegal under Manteca municipal law.

Municipal Code 9.44.030B is crystal clear that no one can solicit, ask or beg operators or occupants of a vehicle within 100 feet of an intersection controlled by traffic signals.

The ordinance was put in place over seven years ago in a bid by elected leaders to try and control aggressive panhandling.

Being homeless is not against the law. Neither is panhandling. That said, jurisdictions have the constitutional authority as decided by courts to control aggressive behavior and to assure public safety such as at intersections controlled by traffic signals as long as the rules apply to everyone.

Manteca in 2007 added a subsection to its municipal code as allowed under state law to make exceptions to the no-soliciting rule within 100 feet of intersections controlled by traffic signals when it is done on behalf of a legally qualifying non-profit organization. It requires applying for a city permit and providing proof of insurance, which the Manteca Firefighters Association did.

There is little doubt firefighters are beloved, panhandlers aren’t.

Constitutional rights mean little if you allow them to be compromised in cases where those exercising the same rights you are – or people you agree with – have them diminished or held in abeyance simply because those trying to exercise them are either in the minority, are not as popular or for want of a better word are “detested.”

Manteca firefighters were not breaking a city law.

Nor are those who wave signs for things such as benefit car washes within 100 feet of intersections controlled by traffic signals as is often the case at Powers and East Yosemite avenues.

At the same time the odds of someone reporting them for being disruptive is practically nil.

That’s not the case for some panhandlers.

Even so, most panhandlers you see such as those at the off-ramp traffic signals on South Main Street on the 120 Bypass do not make aggressive movements toward vehicles stopped at the red light. Usually they just sit or stand there and won’t move toward a vehicle unless motioned over by the driver who wants to give them money.

Shooing away panhandlers at such locations is not a top priority for Manteca Police. They will, however, do so when they aren’t handling higher priority calls. Occasionally they will roust panhandlers during sweeps when such behavior gets prevalent.

There are some who contend what Manteca has in place is a double standard. Specific organizations – legally established non-profits – that secure permits can solicit within 100 feet of an intersection controlled by traffic signals while no one else can’t.

The bigger question is whether intersections developed to the point they are controlled by traffic signals were put in place for safety and efficient movement of traffic or were designed as a conduit for fundraising.

There is no overriding public need for fundraising to take place at intersections controlled by traffic signals. There are an infinite number of places that fund-raising can take place legally just as there is for legal panhandling.

Again, what the firefighters are doing on their own time is admirable. And more than a few times how panhandlers conduct themselves isn’t, although most people have an adverse reaction to them simply by the way they are dressed.

What Manteca allows is legal under state law. But does it pass constitutional muster?

It makes legally recognized non-profits a special group eligible for rights no one else can exercise.

Courts have upheld panhandling as a First Amendment right since it conveys a message whether it is verbal or non-verbal. At the same time the courts have made it clear government can act to restrict individuals when there are clear health and safety issues.

Manteca’s exception to the rule for soliciting at controlled intersections muddies the water.

And it cannot be justified simply because the exception is given to the good guys.

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