Tuesday, June 19, 2012

‘Palmer panhandler’ holds to Constitution

I spotted Daniel Bennett a few weeks ago at the heart of downtown Palmer - the corner of Evergreen and South Alaska, across from NonEssentials. 
Bennett is known around town as “the Palmer panhandler” but I’d never seen him before. 
I walked over. We chatted.  
Turns out Bennett, who works the corner from a wheeled walker with a seat, is disabled. He’ll tell you that a drunk truck driver hit him in 1968. He lives on disability payments. A caretaker drives him around in a beat-up Grand Marquis. 
He can always use a little help, he says.  
But the 57-year-old Bennett also enjoys a little conversation. 
This self-described “Minister of Humor” knows a lot of jokes. G-rated jokes. Why don’t anteaters need much in the way of veterinary care? Anty-bodies. They’re full of ‘em.
He also considers his pursuit of street-corner donations a constitutionally protected right. 
Bennett displays a laminated sign. The front says, “NEED CASH PLEASE GIVE THANKS ALOT.” 
The back features a mish-mash of personal affirmations including “We cannot condemn each other for misunderstanding one another’s separate realities.” 
It also bears language from what Bennett considers the most pertinent section of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ... or the right of people peaceably to assemble.” 
Speech that solicits funds is protected by the First Amendment, he says. The protections afforded by the First Amendment are nowhere stronger than in streets and parks. 
He’s argued that point during a 2007 public hearing in Juneau on a new panhandling ordinance (it clarified where and when people can panhandle, replacing an outright ban). 
He also brought up the First Amendment in court - multiple times. 
A Wasilla police officer arrested Bennett at the Crusey Street McDonald’s in August 2010, one of several arrests he experienced at that location. The code he violated: a pedestrian on a highway may not solicit employment, business or contributions.
Bennett, representing himself, argued his constitutional rights before Palmer District Judge John Wolfe. 
Wolfe ultimately found Bennett not guilty, but not because the arrest was unconstitutional. Bennett’s solicitation occurred on the sidewalk, not the highway. Wolfe handed down another not guilty when Bennett was arrested later that year. 
Magistrate Craig Condie found Bennett not guilty the next year.
Bennett remembers the magistrate saying something about the arrests being a waste of time.
Magistrates can’t comment on such stuff. Notes from that 2011 hearing weren’t available at the courthouse. 

Bennett, who showed up as “Stone Eternal Love” on one court filing, said he leaves his fate up to the universe these days. Ask and ye shall receive, he told me. 
“It’s an act of faith,” he said. Then he raised his sign as another car drove past. 
-- Zaz Hollander

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