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Panhandling at Stop Lights Raises Enforcement Questions

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Dave Smith gets money from woman at stop light Dave Smith gets money from woman at stop light

A couple of years ago in Albemarle County, people asking for money seemed to gather at stop lights. That was stopped, but now it's happening in Charlottesville.

Panhandling is raising questions about what's allowed and what is not, what's safe and what's not, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

There seems to be a common misconception that panhandling just down the road in Albemarle County is illegal, while at intersections in the city of Charlottesville it's not. It turns out panhandling in the road or median is prohibited in both localities - some simply aren't enforcing it as tightly.

Dave Smith has been in Charlottesville for only about a month. He spends most of his days at the intersection of Hillsdale Drive and Hydraulic Road near Whole Foods, asking passersby for money.

"Cops haven't caused any problems with anything, and they said there's no problem being here," said Smith. "In certain places you're allowed to be, in certain places you're not."

At least that's what Smith has been led to believe.

"They stopped by and asked me who I was and said as far as they know it's OK for me to be here," said Smith.

But begging in the median of any intersection in Charlottesville or Albemarle County is illegal.

"It is illegal in Albemarle County. It's against the county code to solicit or panhandle in a roadway or a median," said Carter Johnson, spokesperson for the Albemarle County Police Department.

"We've been trying to address that on a case-by-case basis, and through some proactive work also," said Lieutenant Ronnie Roberts, spokesperson for the Charlottesville Police Department.

Panhandling also presents a safety issue.  

"So really part of our concern here of course is traffic safety, obstructing the flow of traffic and then the safety of the individual involved as well," said Johnson.

So begging is illegal, and it's dangerous - for you and the person in the median. So why is it still happening? Police say it's partially because people still give.

Smith says one out of every 10 people who pass him by give him cash, and until he finds a job - or until he's made to move - he says he'll be here.

"A lot of people are around, but nobody gives me any problems so I'm all right," said Smith.      

Smith says he wasn't aware what he's doing is technically illegal. He says, from what he's been told, this is not a high-traffic area so he's all right. 

In cases like this, Charlottesville police say it is often left to an officer's discretion as to whether a citation is issued.

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