In the first meeting of the Montgomery City Council's ad hoc committee on public safety very few conclusions were reached and nothing was set in stone.
The committee's main objective is to create a new city ordinance to “prohibit pedestrians from interfering with traffic.” According to the city's newest councilman, Ed Grimes, this is all about keeping citizens out of harm's way. “This is about keeping people out of traffic and safe,” he says. Though according to him no one has been injured so far.
The committee is composed of three council members, Ed Grimes, Brantley Lyons and Oronde Mitchell, though Mitchell was not in attendance at the meeting. Part of the meeting was spent exploring options such as the possibility of additional traffic cameras since Police Chief Ramona Harris advised the committee that “in order to issue fines officers would have to witness the violation.”
The majority of the time was spent hearing legal advice from both the council's legal advisor and state representative Will Barfoot, who was also in attendance. Most of the councilman's questions centered around keeping pedestrians out of intersections and the right of way.
There was also a great deal of discussion on which parts of the previously repealed “panhandling” ordinance which hindered pedestrians first amendment rights and centered on avoiding those issues while crafting a new ordinance to keep pedestrians from hindering or blocking the flow of vehicles. In 2019 the Montgomery City council passed, and later that year repealed, an anti-panhandling ordinance that threatened jail time for even a first offense. Even though the ordinance was repealed the city faced legal action from the Southern Poverty Law Center. That suit was settled in November 2020.
Prior to the meeting councilman Grimes passed out copies of an ordinance passed earlier this year by the city of Savannah, Georgia which forbids pedestrians from sitting or standing in streets or on medians “for the purpose of soliciting funds from the occupant of a vehicle.” Grimes said he intends to blend parts of this ordinance with “what is left of the state statute” after a judge blocked portions of it.
Montgomery’s city’s attorney told the council that it would take at least two years to pass and defeat court challenges and that most judges “won't uphold jail time” if any were included in the ordinance.
Across the nation injunctions have been placed on ordinances and statutes similar to the city’s “panhandling” ordinance that was struck down in 2019. At one point in the meeting Grimes even asked “how the Department of Homeland Security would handle” someone standing in traffic “in times of terrorism” and Lyons said, “I've seen a big white van dropping people off at an intersection, who's driving the van?”
The City of Montgomery settled a lawsuit brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU of Alabama and National Homelessness Law Center on behalf of people experiencing homelessness in November of last year. The city was ordered to stop arresting or ticketing people for panhandling because it violated their first amendment rights. When asked if the committee was trying to find a workaround that would ban panhandling without violating the judge's order, councilman Grimes said, “anything that violates their first amendment (rights) I don't think can be in there.”