MIDDLE TOWNSHIP - Township Council has adopted an ordinance banning aggressive begging.
The ordinance requires beggars and other solicitors to obtain permits and limits the areas in and means with which they can solicit money.
Police Chief Christopher Leusner said aggressive begging has become a problem in Middle Township in the past several months.
"It's a recurring complaint from our residents," Leusner said. "I've gotten numerous complaints from residents that say, 'Hey, I was in ShopRite, I was on my way to my car and a person followed me and asked me (for money) three or four times.'"
The ordinance, adopted at Monday's meeting, defines aggressive begging as speaking to or following a person in a manner that would cause them to fear bodily harm or the commission of a criminal act on their person or property, or otherwise intimidating someone into giving money or goods.
Such begging is particularly prevalent near the ShopRite in Rio Grande, said Lisa Baker, who works in the plaza. While she said she has never felt threatened, she believes the problem is big enough to merit action.
"Say you go outside to smoke a cigarette. These people walk out and say, 'Oh do you have an extra one.'" Baker said. "I'm not saying they're the best of characters - some of them are quite scary."
The ordinance also requires those who solicit money to obtain a permit from the township. Permits are valid for one year and available for no charge. Photo identification is required with the application, and a warrant check will be conducted before the permit is issued.
The ordinance forbids solicitation by obstructing a pedestrian or vehicle, solicitation near an automated teller machine or bus or train stop, and solicitation in exchange for a service, such as window-washing.
The full list of restrictions is outlined in the agenda for the township's Sept. 4 council meeting, which is available on the township's website.
Nonprofit organizations may be exempted from provisions of the ordinance if they obtain written exemptions from the township Police Department.
While the ordinance places strict limits on begging, Leusner said if beggars are not threatening and do not violate the ordinance's provisions, they will not be punished.
"Someone walks by and says, 'Can you spare a dollar?' And they thank you, they keep on moving - that's something that is protected by the First Amendment," Leusner said. "That's not what we're targeting here. These are people that are making people feel unsafe."
The punishment for disobeying the ordinance is a fine, accompanied by possible jail time or court-approved community service. Punishments start at $250, as many as 30 days in jail and up to five days of community service, and increase with each subsequent offense. The ordinance will go into effect Oct. 27.
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