Council Approves Strict Permitting Rules For Solicitors

January 27, 2010

West University Place is on its way to having the most strict regulations on door-to-door soliciting that are possible without violating the U.S. Constitution’s protections for freedom of speech.

The West U. City Council on Monday voted unanimously to approve a new soliciting ordinance that will require many solicitors to complete a rigorous application for a permit to sell goods or advertise in the city. But it won’t stop everyone from coming to the door — That’s illegal.

“That only applies to the commercial solicitors,” said West U. City Attorney Alan Petrov about the permit requirement. “The religious and political door-to-door people, you cannot stop them no matter what you do. You cannot even require that they register. That’s just flat out unconstitutional.”

He said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that governmental entities can regulate commercial speech — They can make rules about the time, manner and place for commercial messages, as long as the rules apply to everyone equally. But the Constitution gives religious and political speech the highest level of protection.

“That’s just part of living in the United States,” Petrov said.

Councilman Steven Segal first raised the issue of door-to-door soliciting years ago when he heard complaints from West U. seniors who didn’t want strangers coming to their doors. At that time, the city drafted a no-knock rule: Residents can add their addresses to a no-knock list that solicitors receive when they register with the West U. Police Department.

“That’s not very effective,” Segal said. Solicitors still knocked on those doors.

West U. Police Chief Ken Walker said his department hears frequent complaints about solicitors. Just last week, on Jan. 22, an officer arrested and charged two people with soliciting without registering after a resident called to complain. But besides handing out tickets, police haven’t been able to do much about solicitors. The new permit requirement may provide one more method of enforcement.

“If they violate our ordinance, we can revoke their permit,” Walker said.

Also, anyone who violates the rules could get a misdemeanor ticket and face fines up to $500.

Under the proposed rules, solicitors would have to apply for a $50 permit at the police station that would be good up to six months for commercial organizations, and one year for nonprofit groups.

However, children under 17, people raising funds for nonprofit groups (not selling goods), and students doing extracurricular work would not need a permit. Also, the ordinance wouldn’t apply to organizations that solicited their own members, or solicitors who came at a resident’s request.

But commercial solicitors affected by the new rules would be need to provide a laundry list of information to gain a permit. An applicant would have to show identification, provide contact information for himself and his organization, and give police his vehicle information. The applicant would also have to provide his addresses for the past five years and community references there.

The police would ask to see a copy of the solicitor’s sales tax permit and a description of the goods for sale. For anything edible, the solicitor would have to prove the items complied with health codes.

Anyone with convictions in the past five years for felony offenses and some misdemeanors would not be eligible for permits. People with civil judgments for fraud within the past five years would also be barred.

However, the police department would have to rely on the applicant’s word about his history — Federal authorities who control criminal databases have rules about how police agencies can use the information.

“You can only use the criminal history database for certain approved purposes,” Walker said. After researching the rules, Walker said he learned that a background check for a door-to-door soliciting permit is not considered an approved purpose.

Individuals who successfully pass the permitting process would be required to wear an identification badge while working in West U. They would also have to purchase a $1,000 surety bond so that customers would be protected from items with defects, or in case items were never delivered. Companies with multiple solicitors would need a $5,000 surety bond.

Nonprofit organizations like the Boy and Girl Scouts would be exempt from purchasing a bond, but they would still need to apply for a permit. One “umbrella” permit for the whole organization would cover as many cookie saleswoman as needed.

The new ordinance would prohibit solicitation on Sundays, holidays, and any time after dark or before dawn. Solicitors would not be allowed to go to any home on the city’s do-not-knock list, or homes with posted signs prohibiting solicitation.

Under the new rules, commercial solicitors couldn’t place any advertisements on vehicles or a resident’s property without the owner’s permission. Literature like newspapers and brochures wouldn’t be affected as long as the sole purpose was to provide information, not advertising. Political and religious literature would always be exempt.

West U. resident Gary Cleary spoke at the Jan. 25 city council meeting to voice his support for the stricter soliciting rules.

“I’d like to see everyone who strolls the streets of the city, for us to know who they are,” Cleary said.

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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