Your Permit, Please? 

One of the Weirdest Laws on the Memphis Record Books.

Every state has laws that make a sane person go "hmm." For instance, make a false promise in Louisiana and you could be sentenced to a year in prison. In Idaho, it's illegal for a man to give his sweetheart a box of candy weighing less than 50 pounds. It's against the law to sniff glue in Indiana.

Usually, these laws are holdovers from a time when life was a little simpler, nothing was more important than honor, and people didn't bathe every day. These are laws that have somehow evaded the watchful eyes of legislators and remain in effect to this day.

Tennessee also has plenty of weird laws. In Dyersburg, it is illegal for a woman to call a man for a date. In Knoxville, a hitching post must be installed in front of each business. And in Lexington, no one may eat ice cream on the sidewalk.

And then there is Memphis, where it is illegal for a woman to drive a car unless there is a man either running or walking in front of it waving a red flag to warn approaching motorists and pedestrians. It is also illegal here to take unfinished pie home from a restaurant and for frogs to croak after 11 p.m.

The laws mentioned in the preceding paragraph are no longer enforced. There is, however, one weird law that is enforced, one that the Memphis City Council devised only 10 years ago. It's the law that requires panhandlers to have a permit before asking for money.

In 1994, City Council members passed the panhandling ordinance, which became active in 1996. The ordinance requires "Any person panhandling to have a permit, as issued by the city treasurer, or his designee, in his/her possession at all times." The law restricts panhandling in areas such as parks, golf courses, libraries, the Main Street Mall, and the Mid-South Fairgrounds. When the rule was first enacted, panhandlers had to fork over $10 for the permit. Today, the permits are free for the asking.

So what made the City Council, with more important things to discuss, such as budgets, personnel, and ice storms, decide that panhandling had to be regulated with a city ordinance? According to Memphis Police Department spokesman Sgt. Vincent Higgins, panhandling had become a major problem downtown, and the department was looking for a better way to crack down. "At the time, the Downtown Precinct was seeking a more substantial penalty because patrolmen could lock panhandlers up but could only fine them $50 for violating the city ordinance," says Higgins.

Let's get this straight: Panhandlers were fined $50 for begging for money they didn't have and then were required to pay for not having money? Correct, said Higgins. Surprising to no one, the offenders were not paying the fine and were not forced to spend a night in jail. "Most of the officers familiar with the law will ask to see the permit," he says. "And if [panhandlers] want to abide by the law, they will, but there are those who won't. It's difficult to enforce."

The job of maintaining panhandling-permit records falls to the city treasurer's permit-license manager Lilli Jackson, whose office is located on the first floor of 201 Poplar. Looking through Jackson's records, the Flyer found six panhandling permits on file. Attached to the one-page form are photos of each applicant. Most of the permits are good for one year, but there is a variety of time limits.

"Some people ask for just the time they need," says Jackson. "We've had people come in and ask for a one-month, one-week, and even a one-day permit." One day? What's the point of even applying? "Sometimes when the [panhandlers] know that they are only passing through the city, they only need the permit for a short time."

But Jackson's unit is not just in the business of signing permits and sending applicants on their way. This department means business. Before leaving the office, applicants are given a talk on the nefarious uses of the permit. Jackson says many have tried to use it for soliciting, which is not the same as panhandling.

So, has the new law made much difference with police and patrolling? Not at all, says Higgins. Like other crazy laws, this one doesn't really do the city justice. •

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