Loitering Laws

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 What Is Loitering? Can I Get Arrested for Loitering?

Loitering is legally defined as lingering or “hanging around” in a public place, for an extended amount of time, with no apparent reason. Many states have local ordinances against loitering, or laws that make loitering in certain places at certain times, an illegal act. 

Because of loitering laws, the police have the power to arrest people for loitering. Laws governing loitering are frequently challenged due to the fact that criminalizing lingering is questionable ethics. However, it is still considered to be illegal in many jurisdictions, and in specific circumstances.

Each jurisdiction that has considered loitering to be illegal has its own laws specifying how long a person may “hang around” before it is considered to be “too long.” A common example of loitering would be people spending large amounts of time outside of a convenience store, without any clear intention. 

Laws against loitering are often challenged on the basis of them being vague, which is based on the due process clause contained within the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. Additionally, laws against loitering generally contain overly broad language which raises First Amendment concerns.

Generally speaking, local laws have time, place, or manner restrictions. The effect of these restrictions is that only some types of loitering are considered to be illegal. An example of this would be how a person can loiter in a public park, but not in front of a hospital. Another example would be how a local law could state that loitering by minors during school hours is illegal. The more specific a loitering law is, the less likely it is that a challenge against it will be effective. 

What Are the Consequences of Being Charged with Loitering?

As a crime, loitering is generally charged as a misdemeanor and is punishable by fines and/or community service. A misdemeanor crime is a type of criminal offense considered to be more serious than a citation, but less serious than felony charges. 

In most states, the distinguishing feature of a misdemeanor is that it is generally punished by a sentence of one year maximum in a county jail facility. This sentence is not to be served in a state prison facility, as such facilities are usually reserved for felony charges. Criminal punishments for misdemeanor crimes may also involve criminal fines. Criminal fines are generally capped at $1,000. However, this can also vary by state. 

A broad range of crimes are classified as misdemeanors, including loitering. It is important to note that state laws can vary widely in terms of which crimes are classified as misdemeanors. Consequences for criminal misdemeanor charges could also depend on the exact type of violation involved. 

An example of this would be how for a misdemeanor graffiti sentence, the defendant may be required to perform community clean up, and/or write a letter of apology to the affected property owner. Alternatively, the consequences for drunk driving can involve mandatory DUI classes and other measures. Such consequences can be added on top of the fines and/or jail sentence previously mentioned.

Something else to consider is what class of misdemeanor has been assigned to the crime. Classes of misdemeanors are usually associated with set penalties. An example of a typical penal code may prescribe the following penalties for each misdemeanor class:

  • Class A or 1: Up to one year in county jail, and/or fines of up to $2,500;
  • Class B or 2: Up to six months in jail, and/or fines of up to $1,000;
  • Class C or 3: Up to three months in jail, and/or fines of up to $500; or
  • Class D or 4: Up to thirty days in jail, and/or fines of up to $250.

Per usual, each state could have different names for the misdemeanor classes. Additionally, punishments are dependent on state laws, as well as the circumstances surrounding each case. An example of this would be that repeat offenders generally face higher misdemeanor penalties than a first-time offender would for the same type of crime. States may specifically list a distinct punishment for a certain crime, even if it is classified in a set misdemeanor category.

What Is Loitering by Minors?

As mentioned above, many jurisdictions enforce prohibitions against loitering by minors, i.e. people who are under eighteen years old. Such prohibitions are generally enforced during certain hours, such as between the hours of 10:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. Alternatively, minors may be prohibited from loitering in specific areas. The most common examples of this would be vacant lots, roads, or alleys. 

As always, local laws could vary in how they define what constitutes loitering by a minor. Violations could result in a small fine. Additionally, the parents of the minor could be found liable, if they knowingly allow their child to loiter illegally.

City ordinances that address loitering by minors claim to protect minors from dangers such as exposure to high-crime areas. It is important to note that the way in which these ordinances are enforced is generally racist. Such laws often heavily overlap with gang loitering ordinances

A gang loitering ordinance is a specific type of gang injunction. Such injunctions are aimed at preventing gang members from congregating or loitering in designated areas. Generally speaking, gang ordinances are instituted in areas with high crime rates as an attempt to curb the level of illegal activities in the city. Legal consequences of violating a gang injunction typically consist of fines and/or possible jail time.

If a city gang loitering ordinance is in effect, the local police have the authority to order a group of people to disperse from the public place. This remains true even if they have not yet engaged in any particular illegal activity. Furthermore, the police usually need only the minimum amount of suspicion or reasonable belief that the loiterers are members of a particular gang, which they have identified beforehand. 

Police often make an arrest based on the injunction if they feel it is necessary. Additionally, once an arrest is made, the arresting officers may then conduct a search incident to a lawful arrest. This means that the police would be able to search the arrested person for illegal items, such as drugs. 

Should I Get an Attorney If Accused of Loitering?

There are many benefits to hiring a lawyer for help with loitering charges. An experienced and local criminal lawyer can help you determine whether there are any legal defenses available to you based on the specifics of your case. Because the laws around loitering and loitering by minors can vary so widely state by state, an experienced and local criminal attorney will be best suited to helping you understand your state’s specific laws regarding the matter.

If you were unjustly harassed or falsely arrested for the misdemeanor crime of loitering, a criminal defense attorney will be invaluable. Such cases could lead to a lawsuit in which you may be compensated for any injuries you may have suffered during the arrest. An experienced attorney can help you gather evidence to support your claim and protect your legal rights. Finally, an attorney can also represent you in court as needed.


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