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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Hoping to avoid legal issues, Spokane Valley drafts rewrite to city’s panhandling ordinance

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 5, 2021

Just over a decade ago, Spokane Valley officials established regulations to prohibit solicitors and panhandlers from entering certain thoroughfares throughout the city.

But in light of federal and state court decisions ruling that certain bans targeting panhandlers could constitute First Amendment infringements, Spokane Valley lawmakers are revisiting the city’s rules to avoid potential legal trouble.

The Spokane Valley Municipal Code prohibits solicitation through entering or within a prohibited roadway, barring panhandlers from reaching into the street. These roadways include state routes, on- or off-ramps to Interstate 90 and principal arterials such as Appleway Boulevard, Sprague Avenue and Sullivan Road. The statute also covers the first 100 feet of a road that intersects with these roadways.

The newly drafted ordinance, however, removes references and definitions related to prohibiting solicitations, replacing them with language that forbids “interference with vehicular traffic” within these roadways, according to city documents. This does not apply to sidewalks and curbs. Aggressive solicitation, which is to intimidate another person into complying with a solicited request, remains a misdemeanor.

The ordinance will be formally introduced during Tuesday’s Spokane Valley City Council meeting. City Attorney Cary Driskell reviewed the draft ordinance with the City Council earlier this week.

“In discussions with our police department and with some other municipal attorneys, we think that this will be an effective approach in protecting pedestrian safety,” Driskell said to the council, “but it’s also, we think, very squarely within the law and is not going to run us afoul of any of these new decisions that have caused this review and redrafting of our provisions.”

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 concerning sign regulations in an Arizona town helped set the basis for these changes.

The case Reed v. Town of Gilbert addressed regulations that sought to categorize signs displayed outdoors based on their content, with those categories determining the allowable locations and time limits for display. The court held that the ordinance violated the First Amendment for imposing content-based restrictions in traditional public forums.

The case was referenced a year later in Washington Supreme Court in the City of Lakewood v. Robert Wills. The court found that an ordinance imposed by Lakewood prohibiting begging for “money or goods as charity” at freeway ramps and major intersections, according to court documents, was a content-based free speech restriction as defined by the Reed case.

“Based on that, rather than have a concern about the enforceability of our provisions, we have taken the opportunity to draft a different approach that we think is similarly workable and primarily protects the pedestrian-vehicle interaction,” Driskell said. “We’re trying to provide the safest streets that we can from that standpoint.”

Councilmember Arne Woodard commended the emphasis on road safety during Tuesday’s meeting.

“I do like the way that the changes were made,” he said. “I think it makes it even more clear that we are trying to protect.”

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