For seven years, Kim Muli had put up with Daniel Hinton. Muli owns a Burrito Brothers outlet on Pennsylvania Avenue just east of the Capitol, and every day Hinton would case the joint in search of gullible congressional aides. His schtick went beyond the usual vagrant playing on sympathyHinton had earned a rep for aggressively fleecing lunch-breaking government types. On good days, he’d stand outside Muli’s restaurant and try to talk interns out of a few pennies; on bad days, he’d barge inside and pester people waiting in line.
Hinton’s act hurt Muli’s business. “People were beginning to walk away,” he says. Every day Muli would call the police to haul Hinton away, but his nemesis would be right back the day. Muli says that in 1996, Hinton crossed the line separating panhandler from street thug.
“I asked him to leave two or three times, and he attacked me,” says Muli. The two went to blows for several minutes before the police came and scooped up Hinton. In the two years since the scuffle, Hinton has maintained his distance from Burrito Brothers, but he continues to harass other merchants on this stripwhich runs between 2nd and 4th Streets on Pennsylvania Avenue SEas he has for 14 years. Business owners have barred him from their shops, sicked the cops on him, and even, once, given him a job. Nothing, however, stopped Hinton from wreaking daily havoc on a commercial neighborhood.
Earlier this year, the merchants finally got some official cooperation in their attempts to exile Hinton: The U.S. Attorney’s office issued a stay-away order barring the panhandler from several blocks east of the Capitol. The order, however, has had no greater effect than the repeated scoldings of the merchants and Hinton’s 18 arrests in the past decade. He’s back, and everyone knows it.
The strip that Hinton patrols is directly across from the Library of Congress and a 10-minute walk from the Capitol. Most of the restaurant patrons are tourists and federal workers. On a warm day, library employees can be seen outside shooting the breeze and enjoying their lunch hour. But locals say that the area has become a magnet for panhandling. “I don’t know of another place like this in D.C.,” says Joe Englert, who owns the Capitol Lounge. “I don’t think you’d see this over in Cleveland Park.”
That’s because Cleveland Park isn’t home to the Community for Creative Nonviolence’s homeless shelter and two churches that operate soup kitchens. And on weekends, a group of Maryland do-gooders converge on nearby Seward Square to serve lunch to the homeless. For the truly downtrodden, it’s an important resource: four different spots where you can get a bed, a meal, or both. In addition to the needy, the area attracts a crafty few who make short work of the less urbanized Capitol Hill tourists and commuters. “We have a number of people on Pennsylvania Avenue who have been arrested for various crimes over and over again,” says Sgt. Charles Burch, who patrols the area. “There are probably about half a dozen of them.”
Of this annoying handful, there’s no question that Hinton is king. Area residents say that there are panhandlers who have come after Hinton and have gone on to get decent jobsthe progression that D.C. restaurant mogul Joe Englert once tried to jump-start in Hinton.
Last spring, Englert hired Hinton to work at his Capitol Lounge as a “utility/promo man.” The job capitalized on what Hinton does best: bug people. Englert outfitted Hinton with a new set of clothes and posted him at the door with promotional material to lure customers in. The experiment worked for about four or five months, until Hinton started coming in two and three hours late and skipping four and five hours at a time. “I don’t hate Danny or dislike him. I had to tell him when his mother died,” says Englert. “But I’d rather spend my time and efforts on someone more deserving.”
Once he left Englert’s employ, Hinton lapsed into his old routine. On March 12, Hinton hit the streets to round up some change. His wanderings brought him face to face with a congressional aide, whom he proceeded to attack, according to police reports. The cops arrested him for assault. Hinton maintains that he never touched the guy and that the aide initiated the conflict. “I happened to ask the man for a little change,” says Hinton. “He cursed me out and told me that he’d get my ‘black ass’ locked up.”
Instead of detaining Hinton while he awaited trial, the U.S. Attorney’s office issued the stay-away order against him. A seldom-used device, the stay-away order is designed to keep neighborhood pests away from their victims while they await trial.
The mechanism works better on paper than on the street. Like any other document that curbs a citizen’s rights, the stay-away order must wend through the entire criminal justice system before it can be enforced. After the prosecuting attorney requests the order, it has to move from the judge back to the U.S. Attorney’s office and then to the police precinct.
Even if police officers see the offender in the banned area, they can’t arrest him. Instead, they have to go through the U.S. Attorney and the judge to get an arrest warrant.
In Hinton’s case, however, the cops didn’t even get the chance to set the process in motion. “We never saw the order,” says Burch. “Someone has to be able to transfer the information to the police. That wasn’t done.”
So Hinton was right back on Pennsylvania Avenue within a week. Merchants and residents braced for more trouble. A neighborhood police activist who asked not be identified noted that he and Hinton had had violent exchanges at least three times over a two-year period. The activist once told some tourists that it would be a bad idea to give Hinton moneya slight that kindled the panhandler’s rage. “He told me, ‘Don’t you fuck with my business, or I’ll cut you open’” says the activist.
Hinton articulates a contrasting view of his influence on the neighborhood. “Everybody likes me,” he says. “I think I help business. A lot of my buddies go into these businesses.”
Capitol Hill residents know enough to take longer routes to their destinations simply to avoid Hinton’s threats and taunts. But 14 years of wide berths have taken their toll. “I mean, when is enough enough?” asks a local.
Apparently, no time soon. The stay-away order that never came through could only have been enforced during the time leading up to the trial. Last month, Hinton’s case was dismissed for “want of prosecution.”CP