Cookeville Council denies panhandling ordinance

By Michelle Price
Special to the UCBJ

COOKEVILLE – The Cookeville City Council unanimously rejected a proposed panhandling ordinance when it came up for its second and final reading Thursday night. This action comes on the heels of a passionate public hearing last month, featuring citizens on both sides of the issue.

Vice-Mayor Laurin Wheaton made the motion to deny the ordinance, and it was seconded by Dr. Chuck Womack.

During discussion on the ordinance, City Attorney Dan Radar explained the city’s concerns regarding the ordinance.

“This is a very controversial and difficult issue as we’ve all observed from the last hearing where there were strong emotions on both sides,” said Radar. “Cities across the Unites States are afflicted with problems that are very hard to solve, behavioral problems and peoples’ rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution. 

“The ordinance that was originally passed was very broad. It did raise some legitimate First Amendment questions,” he continued. “Since that hearing, we have done significant additional legal research, consulted with people in the state of Tennessee, and at the present time we felt that since this ordinance was so broad, that I have recommended that it not be passed.” 

Radar went on to explain that ordinance basically duplicated laws already in existence.

“The state has two state statutes that are much stronger than the ordinance and do create a crime if people violate those,” Radar stated. “I would point out that state statue 39-17-313 entitled ‘Aggressive Panhandling’ makes it a crime to intentionally touch the person being solicited without the person’s consent, or by intentionally obstructing the path of the person, or of the vehicle of the person, being solicited; or by following a person who is walking away from the person soliciting the donation.

“These are all state statutes that the sheriff’s department, the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the city police can all enforce,” Radar added. 

Many people were also concerned about the safety of panhandlers and others who solicit from the sides and intersections of the interstate and city streets. Radar addressed this issue by referencing another state statute.

“There is a state statute 55-8-139 that talks about conduct in the median of the highway,” Radar explained. “That also may have application to this. These are much stronger measures. They are state statutes. And the city I think would be better to allow these state statutes to deal with this.”

Radar went on to address other actions and concerns that have been expressed to him since this issue arose. 

“There’s some other behaviors that have been brought to my attention that were terribly offensive, but there are lots of state statutes that address that type of behavior,” he added. “If somebody is stopped or offended, they need to report that to the police and the police can then try to enforce the state statute.”

After hearing the concerns voiced at the public hearing, Radar and the council felt like it wasn’t the right time to pass the ordinance. The contract with the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency to provide counseling and services for the homeless and those in need has been in effect for just over a month, and it is still too early to determine the program’s results. 

“In the meantime, we are going to keep studying this matter,” Radar said as he concluded his statement. “The state statutes are the best mechanism to address these issues.”

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