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Merchants want action on loitering

Several owners and management staff of businesses in downtown Pagosa Springs met with Pagosa Springs Police Department Chief Bill Rockensock Monday to express their frustrations concerning loitering along Pagosa Street.

While Rockensock sought to address the problem considering the broad topic of loitering, begging and panhandling, several of the business owners centered on a single individual (Chris Schmitt) who is a fixture in town.

Many of those in attendance at the meeting seemed frustrated with information presented — that loitering, begging and panhandling are First Amendment rights and have been protected in numerous court cases throughout the country.

“You have to understand, some things my hands are tied on,” Rockensock said to begin the meeting, adding that laws cannot be created for individuals or single any one person out.

Rockensock noted that loitering laws were changed in recent years after being deemed unconstitutional, even on a local level, and that the town largely follows state statute on the matter, with the addition of aggressive begging appearing in the Town of Pagosa Springs ordinances.

Loitering, he explained, now includes being within 100 feet of a school with intent to disrupt that school.

Case law across the U.S., Rockensock said, has upheld the right of people to ask for money, panhandle and beg, citing freedom of speech and likening the actions to the Salvation Army’s bell ringers or street musicians.

Those in attendance then began asking questions specific to their businesses and concerns.

One asked if it was illegal to urge people to not give money to those asking, to which Rockensock responded that it was legal unless the comment was directed at the individual asking for money, at which point it could become harassment.

Rockensock explained that harassment can only take place between individuals, and cannot involve a place as an entity. Rockensock added that definitions of harassment vary on the street, but it is unknown to law enforcement if it is a criminal incident unless it is reported and investigated.

Another attendee asked about stripping to one’s underwear on a public sidewalk.

Rockensock responded that, unless an individual is showing his or her genitals, the act is legal, likening it to the numerous people in bathing suits by the river every summer.

Apparently not pleased with the conversation, one business owner spoke of the “tough financial times” that are likely to be made worse with the news of a Wal-Mart locating in Pagosa Springs, adding that loitering is also a major factor affecting downtown businesses.

“It just doesn’t seem right. We need to band together,” she said.

Another attendee asked about blocking the sidewalk.

Rockensock said the last time a complaint was received about an individual blocking the sidewalk, he personally dealt with it, walking the 400 block of Pagosa Street and determining that no person was taking up more room than any signs or sandwich boards along the sidewalk.

In response to a concern expressed, it was also noted that spitting on the sidewalk is legal, though spitting on people walking on the sidewalk is not.

“I am not going to change rules for anybody,” Rockensock said, adding that any person who commits a crime will (and has been) dealt with appropriately, but that a legal right exists for a person to be on the sidewalk.

Rockensock also compared the situation to recent protests against Wal-Mart, stating that individuals have a right to protest any business without it being considered harassment, but only opinion.

Some of those in attendance then began asking for solutions, few of which were voiced.

“Don’t you think if there was a way, we would have done it?” Rockensock asked.

One person mentioned other cities that don’t allow loitering, to which Rockensock responded they are, “begging to get sued.”

Rockensock said trespass and restraining orders could be pursued if certain criteria are met and a county or district court judge approves the order.

Other ideas floated included asking individuals considered to be loitering to simply move on — a legal move, but not one that requires the person to leave if on a public sidewalk, Rockensock said. An individual cannot, however, block doors, entryways or free passage of the sidewalk — or considering a lawsuit for loss of business.

“If I had the answer, I’d wave my magic wand, I promise you,” Rockensock said, adding that the issue boiled down not to law enforcement, but to a community issue.

Others in the room voiced the opinion that it is unfair that business owners are responsible for the upkeep of the sidewalk in front of their business, but have no jurisdiction over what happens on that sidewalk.

Rockensock also pointed out a recent lawsuit in which New York City was ordered to pay millions of dollars for arresting those loitering.

“We live in America. I’m sorry, I can’t take away someone’s constitutional rights,” Rockensock said, adding, “I cannot enforce morality, people.”

Throughout the meeting, Rockensock noted that any legitimate criminal complaints will be appropriately dealt with.

Conversation at the meeting continued to focus on smoking laws (no smoking within 15 feet of the front door of an open business) and specifically on Schmitt’s presence in the downtown area, his financial health, rights and more.

Following the meeting on Monday evening, signs appeared on several downtown businesses Tuesday, stating, “AFTER 9 YEARS HANDOUTS DON’T HELP. PLEASE DON’T FEED THE HOBO.”

randi@pagosasun.com

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