ORANGE PARK, Fla. – News4Jax viewers are again sounding off about panhandlers on Blanding Boulevard near Interstate 295. News4Jax first looked at the issue along this stretch of road -- Northeast Florida’s highest volume corridor -- about a month ago.
Viewers are again complaining about the ongoing issue but now they’re saying it’s become a safety hazard -- causing near-crashes regularly.
One post in the News 4 Clay County Facebook page reads: I would like to know if someone needs to get killed, or seriously hurt before they ban people from collecting money for their cause in the middle of Blanding Blvd Intersections? Today the light turned green, and just as I was about to let my foot off the brake, some guy walked right in front of my lifted Jeep.
When we dug into the issue along the Duval-Clay County line last month, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office told News4Jax that recent legal rulings had tied its hands with respect to enforcing panhandling laws. Now it’s protected as speech under the First Amendment. That means panhandlers can only be cited by police if they obstruct traffic.
That’s the issue for drivers who say there are a lot of near misses and they feel drivers will be considered at fault by law enforcement should a panhandler ever be hit.
“They walk into the middle of that street and sometimes down the road,” said driver Stephanie Mullikin.
“You have to be careful because they’ll actually walk up to your car when you’re stopped and can startle you,” said driver Tim Hardy.
News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson said this is a difficult issue because police only have so many options with panhandlers given the right to ask for money on the sides of roadways. He said catching anyone blocking a road is hard.
“Once the officers get there, if that no longer exists, there’s nothing that the officers can do,” Jefferson said. “So the way to combat that, if JSO had the manpower and the resources, would be just to sit an officer in those areas being in a marked car or unmarked car. Once they start impeding traffic or blocking traffic, they can take enforcement action.”
Last month when News4Jax looked into this story, Jacksonville City Council member Randy DeFoor, who represents this area, told us that the council and JSO had begun investigating the issue to see if anything could be done. News4Jax has reached out to Councilwoman DeFoor to see if there’s any update on the status of those discussions.