The cost of free speech

Local man issued ticket for panhandling downtown

Thomas Lake sits on the corner where he was issued a ticket for panhandling on Oct. 9.

Thomas Lake sits on the corner where he was issued a ticket for panhandling on Oct. 9.

Photo By tom Gascoyne

Thomas “Digger” Lake is a street person, often seen sitting on the sidewalks of downtown Chico with his cat, Spot, and holding a cardboard sign asking for change. He seldom verbally asks for financial assistance—he said he lets his sign speak to the passing sidewalk pedestrians.

On Wednesday, Oct. 9, Lake was perched on the southwest corner of First and Main streets holding a sign that read, “The right not to be Cen-Cerd! Spare-change?” when a Chico Police officer pulled up in an SUV.

“He started writing a ticket and I asked him what it was for,” Lake later recalled. “He said it was for panhandling, and I said, ‘So you’re saying I don’t have the right to say something?’ He said, ‘That’s right.’”

The officer was Peter Durfee, who serves as president of the Chico Police Officers’ Association. He was enforcing the city’s municipal code under Division VII, Consumer Protection, Chapter 9.54, “Aggressive and Deceptive Solicitation.”

The city’s panhandling law was adopted 10 years ago and written by former Assistant City Attorney Alicia Rock. Crafting such an ordinance is no easy task, in part because of something in the U.S. Constitution called the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech.

At the time, then-City Attorney Dave Frank told the City Council it must “put together findings that justify this type of legislation.” Former City Manager Tom Lando said the ordinance would be aimed at “aggressive” panhandling.

“I don’t want us to deceive ourselves,” Lando said. “With non-aggressive [panhandling], there is nothing we can do about it.”

The adopted ordinance, as noted in its title, outlaws not only aggressive but deceptive panhandling as well, and designates areas where it is prohibited, including within 15 feet of an ATM, bus stop, outdoor vending machine “or any other device which accepts coins or paper currency, except parking meters or newspaper-vending machines.”

There is also a ban on begging within five feet of a public crosswalk or while “seated on or leaning against any public bench, planter, monument, or other public property.”

Lake said those latter two offenses are what officer Durfee accused him of violating. While he was sitting close to the traffic-signal pole on the corner, he said, with his attendant property including Spot, he was not leaning against the pole. Nor does he think he was within five feet of the crosswalk.

“I need to get a measuring tape out here to prove it,” he said.

Lake, who is 35, said he’s been in town for 15 years and has lived on the streets for the last 21. He was born in the Bay Area.

“I sit there and say ‘spare change,’ using the words as an idea,” he said, “I’m not specifically asking for money.”

Lake has a collection of signs including: “It’s not about money, I need change” and “Run for your lives I’m going to ask you for change.”

This is not Lake’s first ticket. He’s had a few others in the past two weeks for illegal camping, and smoking a cigarette in City Plaza. In fact, over the years he’s been handed more than 40 tickets, mostly for camping in parklands. Last December, he had an altercation in Lost Park in which he said he was attacked by a man with a knife. He took the knife and stabbed the man in self-defense. But he was arrested and spent five weeks in the Butte County Jail. The charges were dropped because the other man left the county, Lake said.

During his incarceration, his feline, Spot, was cared for by employees of the Shalom Free Clinic Thrift Store on First Street, where Lake often hangs out. The people who work there speak well of Lake, and he, obviously, has high praise for them.

In the meantime, Lake said, he will contest his panhandling ticket in court. Calls to the Chico Police Department were not returned by press time, and City Attorney Lori Barker, when asked about it, said she had not heard back from the police regarding the incident.