Richmond County authorities said Tuesday that they will arrest panhandlers who simply ask for money in downtown Augusta, a reversal that is being criticized by a state civil rights organization.
On Monday, Maj. Ken Autry of the Richmond County Sheriff's Office said deputies would seek out only aggressive panhandlers who were harassing people. But on Tuesday, he said the sheriff's office had decided that anyone begging for money would be charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor under a Richmond County ordinance. The ordinance covers "any person loitering ... for certain purposes, including begging."
"If we catch someone begging for money, we are going to arrest them," Maj. Autry said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia says the crackdown on panhandlers is another example of police agencies criminalizing homelessness.
"Their panhandling may be a nuisance, but it certainly shouldn't be criminalized," said Debbie Seagraves, the executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. "As adults, we have the ability to say yes or no.
"What if I had a flat tire and I came up and asked a stranger to help me? There is nothing criminal in asking."
The sheriff's office defended the crackdown as a reaction to complaints that vagrants have recently become aggressive in their tactics. The move also comes after five burglary suspects described as "street people" were linked to a string of break-ins and thefts in the downtown area.
CODE OF CONDUCT
The Augusta-Richmond County Code and Statutes states:
"Any person who shall do or engage in any of the following in Augusta-Richmond County shall be guilty of disorderly conduct ...
"Any person loitering within Augusta-Richmond County for certain purposes, including for the purpose of begging ..."
If convicted, the offender can be fined up to $1,000 and sent to jail for up to 60 days.
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.