Combating Aggressive Panhandlers a Tough Task for SEPTA

Transit authority says they’re arresting suspects, but a court rule is preventing repeat offenders from being barred from riding

For Sharon Pearson, there's hardly a ride she takes on the Market-Frankford El where she isn’t hit up for money by a panhandler.

“A lot of them are like really aggressive, because you’ll tell them ‘No, no thank you,’ and they’ll just stand there and there’s one lady in particular that’s just over the top,” the West Philadelphia resident said.

Pearson takes the 46 Bus and Market-Frankford El to her government job on the other side of the city every afternoon and makes her way home at midnight. She says panhandlers almost always ask her for cash and often get into her personal space, making her uncomfortable.

“Some of them, you’ll offer them the food and they’ll take the food and they’ll throw it down and say ‘I don’t want this,’” she said. “I think it’s definitely gotten worse.”

She’s not alone.

Lloyd Howard filed his complaint about the serial beggars with SEPTA’s top cop on Twitter:

SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel says the stories are “frustrating” to hear for him and the department because officers frequently cite aggressive panhandlers, but a current Philadelphia Municipal Court rule is enabling repeat offenders.

“Our more aggressive panhandlers never have any repercussions for their actions because they don’t come to court, we can’t get a stay away order and they never pay the fines, but no warrant is ever issued,” he said.

Under court Rule 1002, people charged with criminal ordinance violations can be tried without being in court. The rule was amended in 2010 to cut down on a flood of backlogged bench warrants.

Chief Nestel says the panhandlers are typically found guilty in absentia and fined. However, he says there’s no follow up to enforce the fines or hold the individuals accountable for failing to pay. The chief says the rule, which is meant to expedite cases, is hampering his department's efforts to combat the problem.

“They’re expediting justice, but they’re not completing justice, they’re not fulfilling justice,” Chief Nestel said. “We have people who have 15 offenses against them and they’ll be out there today.”

For the first three months of this year, SEPTA Police made an average of 16 panhandling arrests a month. Officials say half the time, the panhandlers are repeat offenders who've been charged with crimes like trespassing, harassment and disorderly conduct. The chief says he’d much rather bar them from the system and send them to the sidewalk, where panhandling is permitted, than put them in jail.

“On a city street you can keep on walking away from that person, on our vehicles, you’re stuck there. The person keeps on badgering,” Chief Nestel said.

SEPTA has been targeting quality-of-life issues on the transit system that serves an average of 830,000 riders every weekday. SEPTA officers are citing people more than ever for issues like smoking, public urination, public intoxication, littering and panhandling. So far in 2013, the department handed out more than 4,500 quality-of-life citations – a two-fold increase over 2012.

Chief Nestel says the court has been helpful with handling the jump in cases, but would like some type of threshold to be enacted so that action can be taken when repeat offenders fail to appear in court.

“It’s frustrating for that rider, it’s frustrating for us, it’s frustrating for the court to see 19 cases that there’s never a resolution to,” he said.

In a statement, the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania says warrants can be issued for offenses like panhandling, but that the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office needs to request it.

“The judge would have no knowledge of prior contacts for the same offenses and/or past failures to appear, or to think that a sentence of incarceration may be warranted,” the statement read in part. “It is the FJD's position that the responsibility to handle a particular individual’s case differently begins with SEPTA. If SEPTA is aware of a repeat offender who continues to return to panhandling, SEPTA should make this information known to the [District Attorney’s Office]."

No matter where the warrant request comes from, Sharon Pearson is hoping something can be done soon.

“I just want a peaceful ride,” she says.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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