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Proposed bill would criminalize panhandling, solicitation, giving to panhandlers

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BATON ROUGE - A new bill began moving through the regular session Tuesday which would ban panhandling, solicitation and giving to panhandlers statewide.

The bill, House Bill 97, is aimed to improve public safety on and near roadways, on-ramps and off-ramps. In 1997, it became illegal under state law to panhandle on interstate highway on-ramps and off-ramps, and in 2021, Baton Rouge implemented signs within the city-parish that read "Please don't give to persons in the roadway."

The new bill would criminalize both panhandling and giving on all public streets in the state, not just interstate highways.

"The bill's intent is the state's compelling purpose to keep our people safe," said State Representative Dixon McMakin, R-Baton Rouge. "The idea is that the roads were built for cars and big trucks, and they need to be safe when they're moving around doing commerce. That’s what we’re trying to do."

Those in opposition of the bill like Sarah Whittington, an advocacy director at the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, believes it would take away options for those who panhandle. The bill would also make it illegal for people to give to panhandlers on roadways.

"It takes away an option, and that ultimately is what people should have: is the option of resources they may or may not be eligible for," Whittington said. "Resources they may or may not know about, and if this is their only means, why remove that and why criminalize it?"

McMakin believes the bill would decrease pedestrian accidents and keep busy Louisiana roadways safe.

"I've seen too many times people who are getting in the way of cars or cars that almost hit people, so it’s hopefully a way to decrease the amount of pedestrian accidents we have," McMakin said.

But, that's not how Whittington sees it. If passed, those in violation of the law would be fined $200 and could face up to six months in prison. 

"It’s criminalizing poverty and homelessness," Whittington said. "And it’s something that we see as, honestly, not addressing a public safety issue, it’s addressing a people issue."

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