New road safety law morphs into tool for Operation Rio Grande drug arrests

HB161 bans panhandling from active roadways; Many stopped are found to have outstanding warrants, or possess illegal drugs.<br>

A new law, HB161, is officially titled “Pedestrian Safety Amendments.” Supporters testified during the legislative session that its true aim is to make streets safer — by banning exchange of money or anything else between drivers and people walking out to them in traffic.

But it is turning into a key tool to help identify and arrest drug users and criminals in Operation Rio Grande. It may also show that perhaps too-charitable Utahns who donate to panhandlers help fuel a cycle of drug use in the neighborhood around the downtown homeless shelter.

“It definitely gave me an ‘aha moment,’” says Utah Highway Patrol Lt. Jeff Nigbur.

That came shortly after the launch of Operation Rio Grande, when UHP administrators asked the Salt Lake County troopers Nigbur commands to give some extra attention to enforcing any violations of the new law they see near downtown Salt Lake City freeway exits.

The first three panhandlers stopped “had outstanding warrants. So they were arrested, and all three were found to have illegal narcotics on them,” Nigbur said.

Over the next couple of days as more stops were made for violating the new law, “About half of them led to arrests,” he said, also for outstanding warrants and/or drug possession.

Nigbur said it helped him see more clearly a cycle he suspected. “People panhandle on these freeway ramps. They get the money. They walk over to Rio Grande or wherever. ... They purchase narcotics. They use the narcotics. They go back to the ramps.”

He said that should give donors pause.

“People getting off the ramps want to help people who are in a tough spot. They have good intentions. That’s what’s great about our state and county,” but, he adds, it fuels the cycle of drugs and crime that leaders are now spending millions to try to break.

Nigbur said his troopers are trying to help noncriminal panhandlers and drivers to realize what is allowed, and what is not, often without issuing citations for now.

“The homeless may not see the news or read a newspaper, and may not know about the changes,” he said. “So we are trying to educate them” when they are stopped for a violation.

Nigbur said he saw something recently showing that enforcement and education efforts might be paying off.

“I watched a woman panhandling on the 400 South off-ramp,” he said, not far from a Utah Department of Transportation sign warning that giving to such people in the street is illegal. “I watched her for 45 minutes as sort of a research project before I had to leave on a call. She didn’t get any donations at all. So I think the message is getting out.”

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who sponsored the new law, said police in several areas have told them they find it “is not uncommon to approach someone who is panhandling [because of the new law], ask for ID, and find out that there is a warrant out for their arrest.”

He pushed HB161 after courts struck down earlier panhandling laws as a violation of free-speech rights. He patterned it after an ordinance in Midvale that targeted only people entering active roads, he said, and where police said it often led to other arrests.

“We’re not trying to stop people from being charitable. Just do it in a safe place,” Eliason said. “It doesn’t stop anybody from holding a sign [on a sidewalk]. It’s when they step into traffic that the infraction occurs.”

UDOT has been using electronic signs near freeway exits to warn drivers that they could be cited for donating to panhandlers in active roads. Department spokesman John Gleason said the Highway Patrol solicited the department’s help as part of Operation Rio Grande.

“But the biggest priority for us is safety, and to keep traffic moving. Panhandling presents a challenge to both,” he said.

“Generally, people will go out to get money from vehicles on a red light, and a lot of times they are still out there when the light turns green. So traffic has to wait for the pedestrians to clear the intersection.” Accidents can occur, he said.

While most of the enforcement efforts have been focused on Salt Lake City, that is expected to expand to a much wider area.

In fact, Nigbur said that his UHP troopers have used the law in making stops all around Salt Lake County.

Eliason said he recently talked to a meeting of police chiefs from around the Salt Lake Valley about the new law and was told that all are planning more focus on enforcing HB161.

“If one city chooses not to enforce it,” he said, ”they will probably be the recipient of a lot of panhandlers.”