Panhandlers get help, new court date

Oct. 29, 2013 @ 05:51 PM

About a dozen people charged with illegal begging got offers of help instead of punishment Tuesday in Durham County District Court, but not before two of them voiced disgust outside the courtroom with the current city ordinance on panhandling.
"I had a sign and wasn't bothering anybody, and a police officer gave me a ticket," 57-year-old John Kobani of Durham said in an interview. "Listen - I used to be a terrible person. I used to steal. I did everything, man, to eat and live and do drugs. Well, I don't do drugs anymore. I'm just trying to make my way."
Kobani, who said he has a terminal illness and can't work, was slapped with a $250 ticket while holding a cardboard sign at a downtown intersection.
"How am I going to pay a $250 ticket when I'm there trying to eat?" he asked.
Kobani's case was resolved Tuesday with no fine or court cost.
Most of those in court had their cases postponed to Dec. 18, but the prosecutor dismissed other cases involving people who are sick or have moved out of state.
One reason for the delay is possible action by the Durham City Council later this year to relax a city ordinance that since January requires roadside panhandlers to stand on a sidewalk when they ask for money, and imposes other restrictions.
If that happens, Durham attorney Scott Holmes, who represents many of the panhandlers, plans to ask that all 70 charges against his clients be dropped.
Meanwhile, service providers from legal aid, social services, a homeless clinic and others lined up in court to offer help to those who were cited and arrested.
Presiding Judge Marcia Morey emphasized that help, not punishment, was the goal.
One man told Morey that he panhandles because he can't find a job.
Blake Newton, whose case was continued until Dec. 18, said he was ticketed three times in two days by the same Durham police officer, who claimed he was begging from a grassy area instead of a sidewalk.
"This new law is crazy," Newton, 28, said. "I like the old law, where we could be on a median and make money."