Saying he was unwilling to risk spending time behind bars, Penticton’s most notorious panhandler Paul Braun pleaded guilty Wednesday morning at the Penticton Courthouse to the eight bylaw infractions he was charged by City of Penticton’s bylaw enforcement department.
Judge J. Cartwright of the B.C. Superior Court agreed to the plea agreement by City lawyer Jarrett Plonka and defence counsel Paul Varga where Braun would plead guilty to all eight counts he was facing for panhandling contrary to bylaws prohibiting such actions near public facilities such as breezeways and Automated Teller Machines.
As part of the plea agreement, Braun will pay $11 per count, plus $57 in court administration costs, for a total fine of $145.
Braun was scheduled to begin a three-day trial Wednesday morning.
He also agreed to perform two hours of community service per week under the supervision of a City of Penticton employee up to a maximum of 60 hours.
Plonka originally asked that time be spent cleaning up litter on Main Street, but agreed to change the terms to anything the City deems reasonable after Braun told the Court he’s in poor health and has a tough time crossing the street, never mind cleaning up litter from roadways.
Braun is also prohibited from the 200 Block of Main Street in Penticton at all times.
For the past several years, Braun has spent many of his days panhandling while sitting in a breezeway that separates Main Street to a back alley.
If Braun violates these conditions and is found panhandling on the 200 Block of Main Street in the next year, he faces arrest, court heard.
Braun will be able to continue panhandling, but not in any areas that would contravene City bylaws.
“The only reason I agreed to any of this is I felt I was backed into a corner,” said Braun, talking to numerous media members outside the front steps of the Penticton Courthouse with Varga following the 15-minute court appearance. “If I go to jail, I would come out and I would be homeless again and the whole cycle starts all over again.”
Braun confirmed he’s been living in a BC Housing complex in Penticton for the past year after six years of being homeless and his only source of income is a disability pension, which includes a provision of only $375 for rental accommodations.
“Try and find a place to rent for that. You can’t buy a tent for that,” he said.
The City of Penticton has confirmed it has spent $26,000 prosecuting the case against Braun over the past several months.
The fact part of the plea deal includes community service is hard to accept, said Braun.
“The City doesn’t care,” he said. “They don’t want me on 200 Block. They want me picking up garbage just to parade me around … like a puppet on a string.”
Braun said he’s thankful for the support he’s received from many local residents since he was charged last year with these bylaw infractions.
“I appreciate everything the people of Penticton have done for me,” said Braun, adding people have given him food and support since charges were laid.
When asked why he didn’t accept the previous similar offers from the City to end this dispute before it got to court, Varga, who worked this case free of charge or pro bono, accused City lawyers of “tanking negotiations.”
“Every time they would offer a deal to make some kind of arrangement, they would do some kind of passive aggressive move like putting garbage cans in front of Paul’s spot just to make sure he wouldn’t agree to that particular deal.
“You would have to ask the City why they intended to … make this go as long as it did.”
Varga said he agreed to take on this case free of charge because he continually observed Braun being singled out by bylaw officers.
"It kind of touched a nerve. I thought he needed some assistance. Nobody should have to deal with that, especially somebody who is part of the most disadvantaged part of society. Nobody should have to deal with that alone."
Braun strongly believes he was made an example of throughout this entire high-profile case.
“Was I targeted. Hell yeah,” he said.
He was given a ticket for smoking in a breezeway by bylaw enforcement and weeks later put an ashtray in the same spot, said Braun.
Braun said he fully plans on obeying the court orders, but wouldn’t rule out panhandling in other parts of the City.
“If I get up in the morning and I go to the cupboard and it’s empty, I’ll have to because as far a I know going down to Safeway and helping yourself is still wrong,” he said.
Varga said if the City finds another person panhandling in his client’s former spot on Main Street he hopes “they would go after them with the same kind of vigour” directed towards Braun.
Braun said he no regrets about panhandling to try and survive.
“It’s our right to (have) shelter and food and to roam the streets, unless you’re incarcerated,” he said.
Braun said he’s convinced it's only because he panhandled on a busy downtown street that he was charged and doesn't believe bylaw officials would do anything if he was asking for money with his hat out in a back alley.
“This perception that Penticton might have a homeless problem … they want to hide that,” he said.
Varga said he wouldn’t respond about the City’s costs to prosecute this case except to ask City officials why they were willing to spend in excess of $25,000 on a case against a man they know has very minimal financial means.
“It’s their cost, it’s their problem,” he said. “You will have to ask them why they chose to spend so much on this prosecution.”