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Panhandling Laws - Penal Code 647(c) PC

Posted by Dmitry Gorin | Aug 02, 2023

Under California and federal laws, asking someone for money is protected free speech under the First Amendment. But when the solicitation occurs in a public place and is aggressive in nature, it's considered "panhandling" (also called "soliciting of alms"), it becomes a crime under California Penal Code 647(c) PC.

Simply put, PC 647(c) makes it illegal to accost people publicly or solicit donations, commonly known as the “panhandling” statute.

Panhandling Laws in California - Penal Code 647(c) PC
PC 647(c) makes aggressive forms of panhandling a misdemeanor crime, not passive solicitations.

Accosting somebody involves more than walking up to someone to solicit money. It requires harassment, intimidation, threats, or other similar types of behavior. Passively sitting or standing and waiting for a handout from somebody if not sufficient to support criminal charges.

Panhandling means accosting people face-to-face to beg for money or other handouts.  Penal Code 647(c) targets aggressive tactics of solicitation. More passive solicitation tactics might be considered protected speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

PC 647(c) says, “Every person who willfully and maliciously obstructs the free movement of any person on any street, sidewalk, or other public place or on or in any area open to the public is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Nothing in this section affects the power of a county or a city to regulate conduct upon a street, sidewalk, or other public place or on or in a place open to the public.”

Penal Code 647(c) only applies to public places like sidewalks, streets, city parks, shopping malls, parking lots, government buildings, buses, and other public transportation systems. The property owner can deal with panhandling that happens on private property.

PC  647(c) is not the only law prohibiting solicitation. Many cities have ordinances that prohibit panhandling.  You could face up to a year in county jail if convicted of this crime. Let's take a closer look at this law below.

What Does the Law Say?

Under Penal Code 647(c) PC, a person is considered guilty of panhandling when they solicit for alms aggressively that incites fear or intimidation. The text of the law reads that anyone who willfully and maliciously obstructs the free movement of someone in a public place is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Note that the text does not reference panhandling or asking for alms. This is because the act of soliciting help in itself is protected free speech. What makes the action illegal is the obstruction and intimidation that accompanies it.

To convict you of this crime, prosecutors must prove the following elements of the crime:

  • You solicited someone for money or goods without offering anything in return;
  • You did so in a public place; and 
  • In soliciting, you accosted the person while engaging in aggressive behavior, such as obstructing traffic, touching, following, using abusive language, or some other conduct which would reasonably cause fear or intimidation.

What is a Public Place?

For purposes of this law, a "public place" includes any place open to the public. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Streets;
  • Sidewalks;
  • Parks;
  • Beaches;
  • Parking lots;
  • Government buildings;
  • Public transportation.

We should also note that PC 647(c) does not preclude local municipalities from establishing their rules concerning panhandling.

What Are Some Examples?

EXAMPLE 1: Jared hangs out in a public park along a well-walked path, accosting people and blocking their way as they attempt to walk by while vehemently asking for money. Jared can be charged under PC 647(c) because his actions are aggressive while asking for money.

EXAMPLE 2: Aaron sits quietly on a blanket outside a storefront, holding a sign that says, "Out of work; anything helps." Aaron's actions would not qualify as violating PC 647(c) because he is not doing anything aggressive or disruptive, and his sign is considered free speech under the First Amendment.

EXAMPLE 3: Tina and Amy stand behind a table at a park entrance, inviting passers-by to donate to a local charity helping the poor. They would not be charged with panhandling because they aren't obstructing the path, and soliciting charitable donations is protected free speech.

What Are the Related Crimes?

Several California laws are related to Penal Code 647(c) PC illegal panhandling, such as the following:

What Are the Penalties for PC 647(c)?

Panhandling is a misdemeanor offense in California. If you're convicted of this crime, you could face the following:

  • Up to one year in county jail; and
  • Up to $1000 in fines.

In these cases, the judge has the latitude to consider individual circumstances and impose informal (summary) probation instead of jail time.

What Are the Defenses Against PC 647(c)?

Because it coincides with the guaranteed right of free speech, panhandling is a crime that is often difficult for prosecutors to prove.  Specifically, they must demonstrate that you were asking for money or goods and that your actions could be obstructive, aggressive, or intimidating.

Defenses for Panhandling in California
Contact our law firm for legal advice.

A good California criminal defense attorney often focuses on this ambiguity to show how the defendant's actions could not be considered aggressive. Specific common defenses used to counter this charge are discussed below.

Perhaps we can argue freedom of speech. Your attorney may argue that your solicitation was a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. This defense tends to be more successful in non-aggressive panhandling cases.

Perhaps we can argue that there was no aggression. Your attorney may argue that your actions do not qualify as aggressive, intimidating, or threatening, and therefore those actions could not be considered a crime.

Perhaps we can argue that you were not in a public place: Your attorney may argue that the solicitation occurred on private property, not a public place. This defense can be effective in cases where you were accused of panhandling inside or near a store. Contact us for a case review. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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About the Author

Dmitry Gorin

Dmitry Gorin is a licensed attorney, who has been involved in criminal trial work and pretrial litigation since 1994. Before becoming partner in Eisner Gorin LLP, Mr. Gorin was a Senior Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles Courts for more than ten years. As a criminal tri...

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