Woodinville is looking at ways to ban panhandlers and door-to-door sellers, but the city is limited by free speech laws, City Attorney Greg Rubstello and Police Chief Sydney Jackson said.
Most Council members said they want to restrict panhandling and door-to-door solicitation, and citizens who commented had some creative ideas for how to do so.
Panhandling and door-to-door solicitation can be unsafe and annoying. Several councilmembers said door-to-door solicitation was a way to case houses to possibly rob them later.
"An unwanted, uninvited stranger shows up at your door and wants to talk to you, most likely at an inopportune moment — it’s dinnertime, you’re putting the kids to bed," Jackson described. "And there’s some vulnerability in answering the door these days, especially, as we know what our burglars do — they knock on doors, nobody answers, they kick in doors as well."
Panhandling presents other problems, Jackson said. It’s unsafe when panhandlers step out into traffic, and that also prevents drivers from getting through an intersection. And the presence of panhandlers hurts the city’s tourism and business, she said.
"Oftentimes there’s a panhandler at every street corner with a sign," Jackson said. "Most recently, the complaints are surrounding aggressive and coercive panhandling, to where the request actually turns more into a demand, based on physical proximity to you, to your vehicle."
After doing an inventory of panhandlers in the city, Jackson learned that most aren’t homeless — they’re "professionals."
"In my dealings with the panhandlers in the city of Woodinville, these are professional panhandlers. This is their day job," she said. "They’re dropped off here in the city to stand on the street corner and ask for money. They live in apartments, they have vehicles, they are not homeless, and they are putting their children through college. And they come to Woodinville because the people here give them money. It’s very lucrative."
But both panhandling and door-to-door sales are protected speech under the first amendment, Rubstello said. However, the city might be able to cut down on both those problems by enforcing existing laws.
"Know what conduct it is that we want to prevent," Rubstello advised. "Is it people going out in the street and blocking traffic? Is it cars stopping in the street and delaying traffic? Those really aren’t free speech issues, those are traffic."
It’s possible to restrict panhandling based on the location, the proximity to financial transaction areas, and whether the panhandling is aggressive and coercive, Jackson explained. Police could also enforce current laws against disorderly conduct, harassment and pedestrians in the roadway — although a witness would have to make a statement to police.
Door-to-door solicitors can legally be subject to registration, licensing or permits; background checks; and restrictions on time and place, Jackson said. City and county laws already require sellers to register and have a permit, but there are some exceptions.
Homeowners can also post "No Soliciting" or "No Trespassing" signs to keep door-to-door solicitors away, but charitable, nonprofit, religious, political and government groups are exempt.
Based on the Council’s discussion, Mayor Bernie Talmas asked the city staff to draw up licensing regulations for door-to-door solicitation, which the Council will vote on later. The license or permit will help citizens and police identify whether sellers are legitimate.
Resident Hal Larson suggested having a limited number of permits that door-to-door sellers have to return after using, to prevent people from making fake permits. He had another idea — "make the permit so outrageous they don’t want to pay it." (Rubstello pointed out that charging too much for the permit might violate free speech rights.)
Another resident, Brad Rich, supports educating the public about "No Soliciting" and "No Trespassing" signs rather than requiring a license.
"All you’re trying to do is legislate something that criminals will get around. There’s a lot of people that make a living going door-to-door for legitimate reasons. You’re making their lives more difficult. The bad people will still find a way around it. They’ll use religious reasons, ask for directions, so forth."
To get panhandlers out of the city, Rich suggested referring them to shelters, an idea that Councilmember Paulette Bauman also mentioned. But Rubstello said that often, they’re not looking for a place to sleep.
"Your heart goes out to anyone who’s struggling, but these are professionals, and they wouldn’t be coming back if they weren’t doing quite well here," Deputy Mayor Liz Aspen said.