What Does Loitering Mean, and What Makes Loitering Legal or Illegal?

Ben Allen
Teenage boy sitting in the sand with a young woman sitting on cement steps behind him

The literal definition of loitering is “standing or waiting around idly or without purpose.” Anytime you just hang out somewhere without doing something, you are technically loitering. Sitting on your couch, staring into space? Loitering. Hanging out with friends at a coffee shop after you’ve finished your drinks? Loitering.

The world sometimes puts its own definition on loitering. Many people, especially business owners, view loitering as unsavory people being in a certain location for a long period of time (for example, near the entrance to their business). These “sketchy-looking” people could be teenagers, homeless people, minorities, blue collar workers, or anybody spending time in a place where they draw attention.

Some places have established loitering laws, especially regarding public spaces, but many times, law enforcement are selective regarding which laws to enforce, or against whom they focus enforcement. Discrimination can accompany accusations of loitering, often forcing people who have a legal right to the area away.

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What Is Loitering?

In a much more worldly sense of the word, loitering is when a single person or group of people are lazily hanging out in an area they shouldn’t be. Prime examples of this are teenagers being in a public park at night, people spending time in the loading docks behind a store, or homeless people sitting in a group right outside a restaurant’s entrance or patio. Buskers and street performers are also commonly accused of loitering, especially when being disruptive to the area.

Typically, loitering causes people nearby to feel uncomfortable, especially businesses/business owners. A large group of people, just hanging out in an unusual meeting place, isn’t normal. Thus, some spectators may assume these loiterers are up to no good. They might assume this random group of people is part of a gang, or planning on robbing them, and they want to stop them. Loiterers may also be accused of intimidating other pedestrians, potential customers, or even employees depending, on the situation.

What Does “No Loitering” Mean?

When people put up a “no loitering” sign, they are making their intentions and hopes clear. Don’t loiter in this area, whether it’s a business, a home, or a similar public or private area. Some cities put these up as an attempt to control homelessness and prevent these people from panhandling or begging in public areas, while others try to prevent gangs or teenagers from getting into trouble.

The legality of a sign all depends on the situation. If a sign is put up in a privately owned area, whether it’s a home, business, or open field, the owner has the right to disrupt loitering on their property, as this may even qualify as trespassing. Some cities put up “no loitering” signs for safety reasons, too. They don’t want people hanging outside an emergency exit for a public building and potentially blocking it, or disrupting the flow of pedestrian traffic on a busy sidewalk or public trail. Some public areas are actually privately owned, such as a park in a neighborhood that is owned by the HOA there, thus giving them the right to put up “no loitering” signs and enforce them.

When Is Loitering Illegal vs Legal?

While loitering sounds like a crime, and many believe loitering laws are enforceable by the police, the legal lines are blurry. Typically, the police ask people to move on to try and keep the peace, but commonly they can’t punish people or issue tickets for loitering.

Your Right To Loiter

In most situations, loitering is legal and protected under the 14th amendment, as long as you keep to public places and obey the law. On private property, the owner has the right to remove people at will, but in places like public parks, town squares, and similar areas, you can loiter all you want.

No Loitering Plus

Some cities and towns have laws designed to make loitering illegal when paired with another activity, usually illegal. This is an attempt to break up and prevent criminal activity. Loitering plus laws are commonly paired with activities like: panhandling, drug dealing, prostitution, sexually harassing people, and blocking public ways or exits.

Loitering by Minors

In some places, loitering laws are different for minors. This can include a city or town curfew, no loitering during school hours, or no loitering in places like alleyways, streets, or vacant lots. These laws aim to lower minor truancy and criminal behavior.

In towns and cities that have laws against minors loitering, if they are caught, they are detained by the police until their parents or legal guardians can be contacted and released into their custody. If charged with illegal loitering, the usual punishment is community service or a small fine.

Punishments for Loitering

Loitering laws and punishments are different in every town and city, but in most situations, the punishments for illegal loitering is a small fine or community service. Commonly though, loitering is added to other criminal charges, like drug dealing or prostitution, leading to a higher fine or even incarceration.

If you do loiter a lot in your life, be sure to know your rights and the local laws. A quick Google search can save you a lot of headaches if somebody does accuse you of loitering. If a police officer does ask you to leave an area, even if you have a right to be there, be willing to move along anyways. Stay safe, know your rights, and be smart about where you loiter.

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