California Penal Code 647(c) makes it illegal to accost people in public to solicit for donations. It is often referred to as a “panhandling” statute. This offense is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in county jail.
1. Is panhandling illegal in California?
Yes. Panhandling – the practice of accosting people face-to-face in public to beg for money or other handouts – is against California law under PC 647(c). Another term for panhandling is “soliciting for alms.”
Penal Code 647(c) targets aggressive tactics of solicitation. Less aggressive, more passive forms of solicitation tactics may be protected speech. Outlawing them would potentially violate the First Amendment.1
Penal code 647(c) is not the only California law banning solicitation. Numerous localities have ordinances that prohibit panhandling, as well. These ordinances however still have to comply with the First Amendment.
2. What does it mean to accost someone?
A defendant has to accost someone to violate Penal Code 647(c). Accosting someone is required for a violation of PC 647 section (c). Without it, solicitation is likely
- a form of Free Speech and
- cannot be a crime.
Accosting someone involves more than merely walking up to someone to solicit money.2 It requires there to be:
- Threats, or
- Other impropriety.3
Passively sitting or standing and waiting for a handout does not suffice.4
3. What is a public place?
Penal Code 647(c) only applies to public places. Panhandling that happens on private property can be dealt with by the property owner.
Where public property ends and private property begins is often more complex than people think.
Public places include:
- Buses and other public transportation systems,
- Public parking lots, and
- Government buildings.
Private places include:
- Parking lots for private stores,
- Shopping malls,
- Most apartment buildings, including common areas in it, and
- Private property, like a residence and the yard surrounding it.
4. When is panhandling protected by the First Amendment?
There are several situations where soliciting money is protected by the First Amendment.
Charitable solicitations are protected speech.5 The First Amendment forbids state and federal governments from passing laws that restrict speech that is protected.
Mere solicitation is also likely to be protected speech.6 When not accompanied by harassing or threatening conduct, panhandling is permitted.
5. What are some examples of illegal panhandling?
- Standing in front of a car and refusing to move until getting paid,
- Blocking a pedestrian’s path on the sidewalk while asking for money, and
- Following someone around asking for a handout.
6. Are there related offenses?
Violations of Penal Code 647(c) can also come with other criminal charges. Some of the most common include:
- Stalking (Penal Code 646.9 PC). Stalking is the crime of making someone else fear for his or her safety by following or harassing them.
- Disorderly conduct (Penal Code 647 PC). Charges for panhandling come in the form of a disorderly conduct accusation.
- Disturbing the peace (Penal Code 415 PC). Willfully and maliciously disturbing someone else with a loud or unreasonable noise can lead to disturbing the peace charges.
- Trespassing (Penal Code 602 PC). Panhandling can only happen on public property. If it was done on private property, though, it can lead to trespassing charges.
7. What are some legal defenses?
People who have been accused of violating PC 647(c) have legal defenses at their disposal. They can argue that:
- They were not in a public place and had the property owner’s permission,
- Their conduct was not aggressive enough to be accosting, or
- They had a First Amendment right to solicit money.
Soliciting money is only a crime if a defendant accosted someone else. If there was no conduct that amounted to accosting, panhandling is protected speech. The U.S. Constitution prevents
- state, and
- federal governments from passing laws that prohibit protected speech.
This means the First Amendment protects panhandling that does not accost someone.
California Penal Code 647(c) only applies to conduct done on public property. Panhandling on private property falls outside the scope of PC 647(c). However, soliciting on private property can lead to trespassing charges unless the property owner permitted the solicitation,
8. What are the penalties for a 647(c) violation?
A violation of Penal Code 647(c) is a misdemeanor. The penalties of a conviction include a maximum of:
- 1 year in jail, and/or
- $1,000 in fines.
- The U.S. Supreme Court has not decided one way or the other, yet (Speet v. Schuette, 726 F.3d 867 (6th Cir. 2013)). However, most federal appeals courts – including the Ninth Circuit in California – have found that solicitation is protected by the Firth Amendment (ACLU v. City of Las Vegas, 466 F.3d 784 (9th Cir. 2006)).
- Ulmer v. Municipal Court, 55 Cal.App.3d 263 (Cal. App. 1976) (“Walking up to and approaching another for the purpose of soliciting, as opposed to merely receiving donations, is prohibited by the statute”).
- People v. Zimmerman, 15 Cal.App.4th Supp. 7 (Cal. App. 1993).
- Ulmer v. Municipal Court, Supra.
- See e.g., Schaumburg v. Citizens for A Better Environment, 100 S.Ct. 826 (1980) (“charitable appeals for funds, on the street or door to door, involve a variety of speech interests — communication of information, the dissemination and propagation of views and ideas, and the advocacy of causes — that are within the protection of the First Amendment”).
- See note 1.