"No Loitering" sign in Fortuna, California

Loitering is the act of standing or waiting around idly without purpose in some public places.[1]

While the laws regarding loitering have been challenged and changed over time, loitering of suspect people can be illegal in some jurisdictions and some specific circumstances.

Prohibition and history

Gilbert Wheatley, arrested in England on 7 July 1904, for loitering with intent to commit a felony

While not being a crime by itself, loitering has historically been treated as an inherent preceding offense to other forms of public crime and disorder, such as prostitution, begging, public drunkenness, dealing in stolen goods, drug dealing, scams, organized crime, robbery, harassment/mobbing, etc.

Loitering provides a lesser offence that can be used by police to confront and deter suspect individuals from lingering in a high-crime area, especially when criminal intent is suspected but not observed.

Local areas vary on the degree to which police are empowered to arrest or disperse loiterers; limitations on their power are sometimes made over concerns regarding racial profiling and unnecessary use of police force. The offence remains highly subjective and serious criminal activity must be observed before police can confront any suspect.


Police officers in South Australia may ask a person to stop loitering in a public place (in other words, to leave the place) where they believe on reasonable grounds:[2]

England and Wales

The Vagrancy Act 1824[3] was designed to prevent suspects and infamous thieves from "lingering about" certain places. This was modified slightly by 34 & 35 Vict. c.112, the Prevention of Crimes Act 1871, and 54 & 55 Vict. c.69, the Penal Servitude Act 1891, which introduced the phrase "loitering with intent".[4] The Vagrancy Act 1898 was passed, then both were repealed by the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

The Vagrancy Act 1824 permits in section 6 "any person whatsoever" to apprehend offenders and to bring them directly before a Justice of the Peace. The same section creates a duty on "any Constable or other Peace Officer" to apprehend and bring them before a justice of the peace, or be charged with "Neglect of Duty", punishable in section 11 by a fine of five pounds or three months in jail. The same Act provides disbursements from the general funds of Council for expenses of Prosecutors and Witnesses. Classes of persons that the Act was designed to dissuade, on penalty of three months at hard labor, include:

The law was also used to criminalize men who were found in areas where men picked each other up for sex.[5]

New Zealand

Loitering in public is not illegal in New Zealand, but it is an offence to loiter with the intent to commit an imprisonable offence.[6]

Republic of Ireland

A statute of the Kingdom of Ireland was enacted in 1635 "for the erecting of Houses of Correction and for the punishment of rogues, vagabonds, sturdy beggars and other lewd and idle persons". Many other laws in the 17th–19th centuries targeted vagrants.[7]

The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 stated, "Any constable or peace officer may take into custody, without a warrant, any person whom he shall find lying or loitering in any highway, yard, or other place during the night, and whom he shall have good cause to suspect of having committed or being about to commit any felony in this Act mentioned, and shall take such person as soon as reasonably may be before a justice of the peace, to be dealt with according to law."[8]

In the Republic of Ireland, the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act, 1994 allows the Garda Síochána to order to move on any person who "without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, is acting in a manner which consists of loitering in a public place in circumstances, which may include the company of other persons, that give rise to a reasonable apprehension for the safety of persons or the safety of property or for the maintenance of the public peace," and to arrest anyone who does not follow their orders; on conviction, the penalty is a fine of up to €1,000 or up to 6 months' imprisonment.[9][10][11][12]


The Loitering and Ruffianry Law (in Spanish: "Ley de Vagos y Maleantes") of August 4, 1933, aimed to address issues related to vagrants, nomads, procurers, and other behaviors deemed antisocial.[13] Popularly known as "La Gandula", the law gained consensus approval from all political groups during the Second Republic, with the intention of controlling beggars, unskilled ruffians, and procurers.

Rather than imposing penalties, the law focused on preventative measures, including distancing, monitoring, and retaining individuals deemed potentially dangerous until their perceived threat had subsided. Unfortunately, its regulatory development distorted the law's original intent, establishing internment camps known as "Reformatories for Vagrants and Ruffians.[14][15] This allowed for the arbitrary use of the law to persecute loitering and also to suppress individuals without means, both during the Second Republic and later during the Franco regime.

The Loitering and Ruffianry Law took a cruel turn under the Francoist dictatorship (1939–1975). During Franco's rule, this law was brutally applied, particularly to individuals who were often petty thieves or merely unemployed, falling under the category of habitual vagrants.[16] Paradoxically, those with higher purchasing power, such as "advantage players and ruffians", human traffickers, or procurers, rarely faced the harsh consequences of this law due to their legal defenses and financial means. News reports of the time often featured sentences handed down under the Vagrancy and Ruffianry Act, which routinely sentenced individuals to one to three years of internment in what were essentially "concentration camps," as dictated by the local courts.[17]

Furthermore, the Franco regime further amended the law on July 15, 1954, to include the repression of homosexuals.[18] In 1970, the law was replaced by another, the Law on Dangerousness and Social Rehabilitation, with similar terms but included sentences of up to five years of internment in prisons or asylums for homosexuals and other individuals deemed socially dangerous for the purpose of rehabilitation, maintaining loitering within its terms.[19] Despite the law not being applied during the democratic period, it remained in force until its complete repeal in 1995.[20]


There is no loitering law in Sweden since it expired in 1981, but the Public Order Act regulates what one can and cannot do in public. The municipality decides what rules apply. For example, it is prohibited to drink alcohol in some designated public places. Loitering can be prohibited under particular circumstances.[21]

United States

In several jurisdictions, persons required to register as a sex offender are prohibited from loitering within a defined distance of schools, parks, or other places in which children may congregate.[22]

In 1992, the city of Chicago adopted an anti-loitering law[23] aimed at restricting gang related activity, especially violent crime and drug trafficking.[24] The law, which defined loitering as "remain[ing] in any one place with no apparent purpose", gave police officers a right to disperse such persons. In cases of disobedience, the law provided a punishment by fine, imprisonment, and/or community service. It was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court of the United States (Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41 (1999)) as unacceptably vague by not giving citizens clear guidelines on what acceptable conduct was. In 2000, the city adopted a revised version of the ordinance,[25] in an attempt to eliminate the unconstitutional elements. Loitering was then defined as "remaining in any one place under circumstances that would warrant a reasonable person to believe that the purpose or effect of that behavior is to enable a criminal street gang to establish control over identifiable areas, to intimidate others from entering those areas, or to conceal illegal activities."

See also


  1. ^ Stevenson, Angus; Lindberg, Christine A., eds. (2010-01-01). "New Oxford American Dictionary". Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195392883.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-539288-3.
  2. ^ "Loitering". Lawhandbook.sa.gov.au. 2005-11-10. Retrieved 2013-12-20.
  3. ^ "legislation.gov.uk: Text of the "Vagrancy Act 1824"" (PDF).
  4. ^ "Penal Servitude Act 1891, Section 7". The National Archives. Retrieved 21 June 2022.
  5. ^ "Convictions and cautions for gross indecency". Stonewall. 15 July 2015.
  6. ^ "Summary Offences Act 1981 No 113 (as at 01 July 2019), Public Act – New Zealand Legislation". www.legislation.govt.nz. Retrieved 2019-11-17.
  7. ^ "Report on Vagrancy and Related Offences 4". www.lawreform.ie.
  8. ^ Book (eISB), electronic Irish Statute. "electronic Irish Statute Book (eISB)". www.irishstatutebook.ie.
  9. ^ Book (eISB), electronic Irish Statute. "electronic Irish Statute Book (eISB)". www.irishstatutebook.ie.
  10. ^ "Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994". April 1, 2010.
  11. ^ "Public Order Offences in Ireland-What You Need to Know | Terry Gorry & Co. Solicitors". 22 May 2013.
  12. ^ O'Mahony, Paul (February 17, 2002). Criminal Justice in Ireland. Institute of Public Administration. ISBN 9781902448718 – via Google Books.
  13. ^ "Ley relativa a vagos y maleantes" (PDF). Gaceta de Madrid (217): 874–877. 5 August 1933. Retrieved 21 November 2015.
  14. ^ "Gaceta de Madrid.—Núm. 163, de 12 de Junio de 1934" (PDF). BOE.es (in Spanish). 1934. Retrieved 2 December 2018.
  15. ^ Colonia penitenciaria en Annobón. Diario Español.
  16. ^ "La ley de vagos y maleantes desde su praxis social. Una aproximación al control de la pobreza desviada durante el primer Franquismo (1936–1960)". Revista Vegueta (in Spanish).
  17. ^ "La Construcción Discursiva del Sujeto Peligroso en la ley de Vagos y Maleantes Durante el Franquismo (Islas Canarias, 1950-1959)", Vínculos de Historia.
  18. ^ "BOE n° 198, 17 de julio de 1954" (PDF). BOE. 1954. Retrieved 30 April 2007.
  19. ^ "Ley 16/1970, de 4 de agosto, sobre peligrosidad y rehabilitación social". Spanish Government. Official State Gazette (Boletín Oficial del Estado, BOE). Retrieved 2023-09-13.
  20. ^ "Ley Orgánica 10/1995, de 23 de noviembre, del Código Penal". Spanish Government. Official State Gazette (Boletín Oficial del Estado, BOE). Retrieved 2023-09-13.
  21. ^ Riksdagsförvaltningen. "Ordningslag (1993:1617) Svensk författningssamling 1993:1993:1617 t.o.m. SFS 2014:590 – Riksdagen".
  22. ^ Wright, Ph.D Richard G. (2014). Sex offender laws : failed policies, new directions (Second ed.). Springer Publishing Co Inc. pp. 50–65. ISBN 978-0-8261-9671-2.
  23. ^ "Division for Public Education - Standing Committee / Public Education". www.abanet.org.
  24. ^ "Gang Congregation Ordinance: Supreme Court Invalidation". Findarticles.com. Retrieved 2013-12-20.
  25. ^ "Illinois Youth Summit". CRFC. Archived from the original on 2012-02-27. Retrieved 2013-12-20.