aggressive solicitors and home burglaries on Mercer Island gave elected officials an earful Monday night at City Hall, calling for stronger laws to monitor who's knocking on their doors.Residents worried about
City Council pledged to repeal and replace a local law that requires door-to-door salespeople, solicitors and peddlers to register with City Hall before they are allowed to contact residents at their homes in-person at the Aug. 12 meeting, supporting a motion, 4-1, to ask City Attorney Katie Knight to draw up new regulations.
Residents began a letter-writing campaign to the city to strengthen the law earlier this year, not long after officials acknowledged an increase in residential burglaries in Mercer Island neighborhoods — 87 were investigated in 2012.
Homeowner Carl Dodrill said residents began to grow fearful after repeatedly experiencing "scary" encounters with strangers at their door, often in the evening when it was dark out.
"Listening for an hour here, I have come to the conclusion that I might have to put up a no trespassing sign," he said.
Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes said many residents told him they believe that the increase is related to a number of aggressive solicitors who began visiting Mercer Island in recent months, many from out-of-state locations selling magazine subscriptions.
During a study session on restricting door-to-door sales and soliciting, Holmes said police received 59 calls complaining about aggressive door salespersons over a four-month period, February to May 2013. He said he welcomed an update to the law, which he described as inadequate. But the police chief also said the link between solicitors and burglaries was tenuous — though possible.
"We've documented one known case of a burglar posing as a solicitor over the last decade," he said. "Is it possible that burglars are posing as solicitors? Yes it is possible. But we're not really seeing that here."
Knight expressed hesitation on how broadly regulations could be applied after a Federal Circuit Court in Seattle struck down a similar law in 2000 in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a non-profit organization. U.S. District Court Judge John C. Coughenour, who continues to sit on the bench in Seattle, ruled that registration or background checks to political, religious and charitable organizations "constitute an improper prior restraint on speech protected by the First Amendment, and are impermissibly overbroad and vague, chilling constitutionally protected speech."
Mercer Island's law, Knight said, is similar to Medina's and has remained on the books, unenforced, for 13 years. She recommended the current law be repealed, and that a new regulation concerning only commercial soliciting, which exempts religious, political, and local youth groups could be drafted.
Knight also offered to look into licensing non-profit solicitors in a way that would withstand a First Amendment legal challenge.
Homeowners didn't agree with Knight's caution, imploring officials to seek additional legal opinions and push for broader measures.
"It's a simple thing to see that there's more than one, two or three ordinances around the state (still being enforced)," said Larry McWilliams, including options studied by the city, such as SeaTac and Poulsbo.
Many residents also resented the implication by city officials that existing trespassing law and posted "No Solicitor" or "No Trespassing" signs gave them additional legal protections.
"I had solicitor come to the door, and it was frightening. He was demanding me to "Open this door, right now"," said South End resident Jude Mitchell. "We had some friends visit us for dinner the other night and saw our 'No Solicitor' sign. They saw it and said, "Oh, that's typical Mercer Island, isn't it?"
"(The solicitor ordinance) hasn't been enforced for 13 years … You're asking people to put up a sign for no reason," said Kevin Scheid, a resident and candidate for Mercer Island City Council. "With all these 'No Trespassing' signs, we're not exactly going to get a 'Friendliest City' award."
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