The night of May 18 was a tipping point for Lorene Auger.
The Laguna Beach resident was strolling along Forest Avenue, near the intersection with Glenneyre Street, about 8:30 p.m. when she saw a woman drop her pants and soil a concrete bench.
Auger, already tired of panhandlers in the city and repulsed by the woman's offensive behavior, took photos of the scene and submitted them to local media, City Council members and Laguna Beach police to document what she considered a health hazard and an unacceptable public display.
"We should not be walking through downtown and see those people doing this in the area," Auger said last week. "I've never seen people drop their drawers."
Auger, who has lived in Laguna for seven years, is going a step further by seeking a city ordinance that would require panhandlers to obtain licenses — as merchants are required to do. Auger said police are willing to work with her on drafting such an ordinance, which would then have to be vetted by city staff to determine if it would go before the City Council.
The proposed ordinance would not outlaw panhandling, just regulate it, she said, adding that panhandlers would be required to obtain a bright sticker to signal to passersby that they have registered with the city. But since panhandlers may have mental health issues and not comprehend or care about local regulations, how to get them to comply is a big question.
Still, Auger believes that this step would weed out "professional" panhandlers — those aiming to scam the public — from people truly in need of help, while not impinging on protected free speech rights. She said she researched several cities' panhandling ordinances in brainstorming ideas for Laguna.
"Panhandlers are not necessarily homeless or destitute," Auger wrote in a follow-up email, adding they "drain the limited resources away from our most vulnerable homeless population in greatest need."
In fact, the woman whom Auger encountered on May 18 is a bit of a puzzle — as well as the subject of a police investigation.
According to Laguna Beach police, the woman, who is in her 80s, has housing. She lives outside of Laguna and has been dropped off in town several days a week for nine years, Sgt. Tim Kleiser said.
Police did not release the woman's identity because of the investigation. The Orange County district attorney's office is considering possible criminal public-nudity charges, Kleiser said.
Sheila Bushard, owner of Bushard's Pharmacy on Forest, said she has seen a man drop the woman off in front of the business for several years, typically at 6 p.m. on any given night.
Police have received several complaints but have never cited or arrested the woman.
Police reviewed the photos but "can't prove whether she urinated or defecated," Kleiser said. Defecating in public is a misdemeanor, but police would need to witness the crime to cite or arrest a person, Kleiser said.
Bushard said she has confronted the driver, wondering why he leaves the woman on the street for hours to beg for money.
"How can you do this to your mom," Bushard recalled saying, believing their relationship to be that of mother and son. "You should take care of her."
Bushard said the man "rattles off her constitutional right to sit there and beg for money."
"Asking for money is not illegal," Kleiser said. "As long as she is not blocking the sidewalk so no one can come through."
Auger said she saw the woman blocking a sidewalk along Forest Avenue twice this week.
The idea behind the ordinance is if a panhandler is seen without a sticker, the observer could call police. An officer would meet with the panhandler to find out if help — in the form of food, shelter or medical services — is needed.
If the person refuses help, the officer would be required to tell the person to stop soliciting or apply for a license with the city.
When asked about the photos and a possible ordinance, Mayor Steve Dicterow said a balance must be reached.
"What can we do to legally protect the public from that kind of behavior?" Dicterow said, adding he would defer to the city attorney's interpretation, noting as well a person's constitutional rights.
Panhandling ordinances are nothing new in the U.S. The number of cities with outright bans on the practice increased 25% between 2011 and 2014, according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, an advocacy group.
But jurisdictions with ordinances have encountered legal challenges.
Last year federal judges struck down panhandling ordinances in Lowell, Mass., and Grand Junction, Colo., according to Stateline, a publication from The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Stateline quoted the judge's ruling in the Lowell case, which said panhandlers "may communicate important political or social messages in their appeals for money, explaining their conditions related to veteran status, homelessness, unemployment and disability."
Bryce Alderton, firstname.lastname@example.org