Lower Merion digging into snow-shoveling flap

At issue is an ordinance that dates to an era when salesmen hawked vacuum cleaners and cosmetics door-to-door.

Lower Merion Township police said the 50-year-old ordinance - not racial profiling - was behind the questioning of five African American men soliciting snow-shoveling jobs in a wealthy neighborhood.

"The ordinance balances both safety and soliciting business," Commissioner Scott Zelov said Friday. Questions remained about how the township applied the law, and how the officers acted.

"I hope they were being responsible," said Zelov. "I think that we have to wait until the conclusion of the investigation to be certain."

A woman who saw police interacting with two men her father hired to shovel snow Tuesday worried that they were questioned because of their skin color.

Anti-solicitation ordinances like Lower Merion's are common. Police say they are a useful tool.

The 1964 ordinance, most recently amended in 2009, restricts "sale of goods, wares or merchandise," including magazines, home repair devices, and services and contributions to some groups. When the ordinance was written, door-to-door salesmen and magazine peddlers were common irritants.

The ordinance does not apply to teenagers or religious, political, or nonprofit groups. Anyone else trying to make money by knocking on doors, though, must acquire a permit, valid through a calendar year.

There are currently 18 approved permits in Lower Merion, said Mike McGrath, police superintendent.

"As far as profiling, that's a bogus argument," said John Norris, police chief in Cheltenham Township, which has a similar ordinance. "It's all about public safety." It helps protect people from criminals who pose as solicitors to case out burglary targets.

Legal experts agree that the ordinances serve a purpose.

"There is a history of fraud and other criminal activity associated with door-to-door salesmen," said Mary Catherine Roper, senior attorney with the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union.

Police said anti-solicitation ordinances are popular with the public.

Several lawyers, though, said they thought Lower Merion police might have stretched the ordinance beyond its intent. Jeff Garton, who served as town solicitor in several Bucks County municipalities, said such ordinances are not typically designed to apply to services like snow shoveling.

Matt Portella, a Haddon Heights lawyer who represents clients accused of violating municipal law, said it was unfair to conclude that police were profiling, but asked why the men were approached even though police had received no complaints.

"It causes me some concern," he said. "They're just canvassing the neighborhood, and they're going to ask them a question?"

The witness, Deborah Saldana, said police questioned the men as they shoveled. Police say officers saw them soliciting. A picture posted by Saldana showed the two shovelers sitting in the snow while talking to police. A township spokesman said the interaction was cordial.

Police do not need a justification to engage in conversation with people. McGrath noted that the shovelers were not detained and were free to refuse to talk with officers.

"The problem was if they are putting the force of law behind calls that are really just about someone who doesn't look like other folks being in the neighborhood," Roper said. "I would expect you can see, without interrupting their work, without making them worry they're under some sort of suspicion, you can see, OK, they are very clearly shoveling snow."


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