ST. PETERSBURG — The city is proposing a new ordinance aimed at truth in advertising — on those cardboard signs people hold up on the side of the road.
The new ordinance would ban "fraudulent panhandling," making it illegal for panhandlers to claim that they're homeless or disabled or a veteran or stranded if they're not.
"Most of the people who fly the cards say they're homeless or veterans, but most aren't veterans or homeless," said Robert Marbut, the city's consultant on homelessness. "But they are making a lot of tax-free money."
But the proposal raises many questions: How would the police check the accuracy of those claims? Can the city really regulate what people write on signs? And after the city's successful crackdown on the homeless and panhandling population, who's left to break the new law?
"They need one more?" said G.W. Rolle, an advocate for the homeless. "I'm kind of flabbergasted. Haven't they won the war against the homeless?"
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger already sees a flaw in the law: a homeless person could incriminate himself just by answering an officer's questions. The Fifth Amendment protects against that.
"It's the criminalization of homelessness," Dillinger said. "And in this case since it's a criminal offense, you don't have to answer.
"You prove that I'm not homeless. You prove that I'm not a veteran."
If any of these cases ever go to court, the area's top public defender added: "I'll try some of those myself."
Starting last year, St. Petersburg has used a number of ordinances and initiatives to help push the city's once teeming population of homeless people and panhandlers off the streets and into treatment programs and shelters — or out of the city.
Last year the council banned street solicitation to stop people from begging for money from passing vehicles. In January, the city helped open a 500-bed shelter, Pinellas Safe Harbor, in a former jail facility.
In July, the increased shelter space allowed police to enforce the city's ban against sleeping or reclining on public sidewalks. They gave people a choice: Leave, go to the shelter — or to jail.
That's why officers don't see many people soliciting or sleeping on the streets anymore, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz.
So what's the purpose of the new ordinance? Assistant city attorney Mark Winn said it's needed to tighten up the existing ordinances and also will give police one more tool to combat street solicitation.
"It's just strengthening the ordinance a little bit," he said.
Winn said what allowed the city to consider such an ordinance are new state laws passed by the Florida Legislature aimed at aggressive panhandling.
The new state laws are actually weaker than the city's laws, Winn said.
The City Council will have to opt out of those to preserve its own laws, but a facet of the state's new law opens the door for the city to crack down on "false or misleading representations when panhandling."
Marbut said it won't be that hard to enforce. Veterans who receive military benefits or anyone who gets disability benefits already have the required identification, he said. Officers also interact with the homeless all the time and know their stories.
But what about the First Amendment right of those holding the signs to freely express themselves?
"I don't think you have a First Amendment right to lie," Winn said. "I don't think of it as much different from regulating false or misleading advertising."
Winn added that there's also a commercial reason to believe the ordinance doesn't infringe on free speech: "Because I think they're trying to engage in a transaction, it takes it out of the realm of the First Amendment."
But Dillinger said such an ordinance violates the spirit that led to the creation of Pinellas Safe Harbor. "The whole purpose of the cooperation of all these different agencies with Safe Harbor was to not criminalize homelessness," he said.
Rolle wishes the city and the Legislature would spend more time applying such legally creative solutions to find permanent housing for the homeless.
And he wonders this: What if those cardboard signs turn out to be true?
"Suppose they really are a veteran, or really are homeless?" Rolle said. "Do they just let them go?"
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.