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Houston’s Plan to Criminalize Charity

| March 6, 2012

Houston City Council will be considering an ordinance (see page 32) today which would criminalize the giving of food to the needy without permits or complying with a long list of regulations. The offense for helping others in a way that is not approved by city bureaucrats is a fine of up to $2,000 a day, with each new day of renegade charitable giving classified a separate offense.

The reasoning behind the law seems to have little sense and the enforcement mechanism in place makes even less sense. People and non-profit organizations shouldn’t be deterred from helping others due to government red tape. With no requirement of a culpable mental state for conviction (mens rea), those who will most likely suffer are those who had no idea such a statute existed or attempted to comply but made a mistake when trying to follow cumbersome regulations.

Here are some examples of ridiculous provisions in the bill:

• The criteria used to demonstrate whether or not a facility can be used for charitable feeding must include “reliable statistical data or similar information indicating a demonstrable need for charity feeding in the area,” a ridiculous requirement due to the fact that people who are hungry can be found everywhere and efforts to reach out to these people should not be restricted to what the cities say are highly dense hunger areas.

• “Parks with arboretums, ball fields, tennis courts, parks with special shrubs or vegetation would be unsuitable for these charitable feeding activities.” Do we not already serve food at ballparks and at tennis matches? How does the act become magically illegal when the food is no longer sold, but instead given away for free? Amazingly, busybody politicians and bureaucrats cannot stomach the notion that a citizen would give away free drinks after a baseball game or, even worse, free snacks to those who came to watch.

• “Food providers will be required to be registered and to conduct charitable feeding activities in accordance with all terms and conditions required by the Health and Human Services Department,”

• And last but not least “HPD will provide back up support to the Health Inspectors as needed and has the authority enforce any applicable state law or city ordinance,” with a criminal misdemeanor charge carrying a fine of up to $2,000 and possible arrest for failure to comply with this penalty.

The justification behind this bill is dubious as well. There is no evidence government-regulated feedings are more sanitary than those operated by charitable regulations free of such red tape. . Backers also claim Houston is the only one of the largest cities that has not put in place a similar ordinance. The fact that other cities have criminalized charity is not a logical argument for why Houston should also deprive it residents of charity. As our overcriminalization work has documented, many governments have many unnecessary and counterproductive laws.

Interestingly, one reason Houston has economically outperformed most cities is due to its lack of zoning, which is unique among major cities. Houstonians and Americans do not hunger for a larger serving of big government. Rather, they are best nourished by charity and liberty, both of which this ordinance eats away at.

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MARC A. LEVIN is Right on Crime’s Policy Director, as well as the Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  Based in Austin, Texas, Levin is an attorney and an accomplished author on legal and public policy issues.  Levin served as a law clerk to Judge Will Garwood on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and Staff Attorney at the Texas Supreme Court.  In 1999, he graduated with honors from the University of Texas with a B.A. in Plan II Honors and Government.  In 2002, Levin received his J.D. with honors from the University of Texas School of Law.  Levin’s articles on law and public policy have been featured in national and international media outlets that regularly turn to him for conservative analysis of states’ criminal justice challenges.

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