PATCHOGUE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — Downtown Patchogue is more popular than ever.
With new apartments built near the train station, the area is packed with people going to the theater, local restaurants and shops.
“I think that where there’s people, there’s money, and where there’s money, there are people asking for it,” Mayor Paul Pontieri said.
In the past six months, Pontieri said aggressive panhandlers have become more and more of a problem. Now, the village has banned aggressive panhandling.
“We have a number of ATM machines that are on Main Street, we have a number of ATM machines and parking meters throughout the village, and we’re finding that people are beginning to congregate around those,” Pontieri said. “If somebody comes in, they go to the Patchogue theater. They have a great experience there, they go to dinner, they go to their car, and they get harassed, and somebody follows them asking for money. I don’t want a person’s last experience in this village to be it being harassed by somebody.”
It’s now illegal to come within 20 feet of a person at an ATM, parking meter or doorwa to disrupt, threaten or intimidate, CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported. Also banned is approaching an operating vehicle or soliciting someone who’s already declined.
Anyone caught aggressively panhandling can be hit with a $250 fine or even 15 days in jail. It’s the first ban of its kind on Long Island.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down New York state’s panhandling restrictions on the basis that they violated free speech, but “there is no constitutionally protected right to aggressive panhandling — touching someone, blocking their way,” said Patchogue Village Attorney Brian Egan.
“Everyone has a constitutional right to ask for a dollar or $2 or $5 or $20,” Pontieri said. “People have the constitutional right not to be bothered, not to be harassed.”
Added David Kennedy of the Patchogue Chamber of Commerce: “We want to assist those that need help, and we try to do many things to do that, but when it gets to an aggressive nature, you need to address that.”
Residents and business owners agree the problem has grown out of control.
“It prevents people from wanting to come here, and it’s really unfair to the local businesses,” one woman said.
“It’s just constant harassment,” said another woman. “You can tell the same person over and over day after day, and they’ll come right back.”
“They don’t give up, and they chase you around,” said John Murray, a Patchogue business owner. “And we’ve had some people uncomfortable in the parking lots. Basically, it’s not taking no for an answer.”
Critics wonder how it can be enforced.
“If they could afford a ticket, they wouldn’t be panhandling,” one man said.
Village officials acknowledge the issue is a symptom of bigger problems such as drugs and homelessness. For those, they say they need state and Suffolk County help. But for now, they need to stand up for merchants and shoppers.
The New York Civil Liberties Union told CBS2 “there are already laws on the books that deal with problems like harassment and threats. This law unnecessarily targets the poor and threatens to criminalize homelessness.”