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Solicitors on Mercer Island not tied to burglaries

In response to requests from the City Council — and a drumbeat of worry from Island citizens, about a growing presence of solicitors and a possible connection to an increase in crime on the Island, the city attorney and police chief have taken another look at how to regulate people who go door-to-door to sell goods or to ask for money.

A private investigator working on a high profile burglary at a home on East Mercer Way earlier this year commented that people posing as solicitors were used as lookouts.

However, Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes said that in his experience, there is not a connection between solicitors and burglaries.

“Only one time in the last 10 years did we find a connection between a solicitor and a crime,” he said.

“It is possible,” he said, “but we do not see it.”

But Holmes acknowledges that more aggressive solicitors seem to be appearing on the Island.

“From January to May of this year, we have had 59 calls from people who were uncomfortable with the people who came to their door,” he said.

The city does have a law on the books regarding solicitors that was passed in 1994. But the city does not enforce it.

“It is a problem for us,” he said. There are constitutional issues regarding freedom of speech.

Holmes was referring to a lawsuit over an ordinance to regulate solicitors in the city of Medina. The law was struck down by the court as unconstitutional.

City Attorney Katie Knight agreed. Laws that require solicitors to register or get a license first represent a prior restraint on free speech, she explained.

Despite problems with the existing ordinance, City Council members wanted to offer some assurance to citizens about the people who come to their door uninvited.

Ideas discussed during the Council study session on Aug. 12 included having solicitors register at the city or to have photo ID.

City Manager Rich Conrad said he has had many people come to his door.

He said it is important for people who answer the door to know who they are talking to.

“If I can’t figure out who they are, that is a problem,” he said.

The Council also discussed setting hours when solicitation would be allowed or whether or not any new ordinance would invite a lawsuit.

Other issues with a solicitors ordinance is what exemptions would be made. Examples would be Boy and Girls Scouts or neighborhood kids selling items for school fundraisers. But how to choose or describe those exemptions would be difficult.

Despite the many issues with enforcement or constitutionality, deputy mayor Dan Grausz wanted to refocus on the problem.

“What are we trying to accomplish here?” he asked.

“[People] fear that people who are coming to their homes are casing their homes,” he said. “If an ordinance does not do that, then we are wasting our time.”

Both Holmes and Knight said that the best and most immediate protection for homeowners would be to post a ‘No Trespassing’ sign or a ‘No Solicitors’ sign on their door.

“It is the most effective way to deal with this,” Knight said.

It sends a clear message.

“If you are told to leave, then you cannot be here, and do not come back,” she said.

Trespassing is already a crime under Chapter 9.14 MICC. If a homeowner posts a ‘No Soliciting’ or ‘No Trespassing’ sign, or actually communicates to the solicitor that the homeowner desires that the solicitor leave, and such a sign or actual communication is ignored, a trespass has arguably occurred.

Islander Larry McWilliams told the Council that he does not mind the tree-trimmers or the neighbor kids coming to his home, but “we need to be able to identify these people.”

“Please get serious about this,” he told the Council.

For more, go to www.mercergov.org and click on the “Agenda and Minutes” box on the left column, select Aug. 12, and click on the packet.

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