Loitering is an activity in which someone remains stationary in a public area for an extended period of time without a specific purpose or for a purpose which is illegal. In some regions of the world, loitering itself is not legal and can result in fines, jail time, and other punishments. Engaging in this activity in other areas may be punishable only when it is linked with illegal activity. Historically, anti-loitering laws were very common, but thanks to legal challenges, they have become less widespread and less frequently enforced.
The law generally distinguishes between people who are loitering without any intent to do harm and people who are clearly a public nuisance or threat to safety. A group of friends which emerges from a theater or restaurant and chats on the sidewalk for a few moments before dispersing, for example, is technically loitering but is unlikely to be penalized for it. On the other hand, if the group stayed for hours and became raucous, police officers might show up to order the group to disperse to a more appropriate venue.
When loitering is linked with activities like obstructing passage along a road or sidewalk or attempting to control an area, it can be a cause for law enforcement intervention. Control of territory through loitering is of special concern in areas where gang activity is an issue, and gang members may loiter at key points in order to send a message to other gangs. It can also be viewed as criminal activity when it is accompanied with begging, solicitation, sales, public drunkenness, intimidation, or being a public nuisance.
Generally, people who wish to use public spaces for sales, such as street vendors, must receive permits to do so. People who do not have permits are considered loiterers and can be penalized. Street vendors can become very aggressive about loitering because they have an interest in protecting their sales turf. Vendors who pay for permits may also be resentful at people who do not obtain permits and are thus spared a sometimes substantial overhead cost.
In areas where vague loitering laws are still on the books, it is generally understood that the laws will only be enforced in the event of a nuisance or safety issue. Law enforcement officers are careful about how they enforce such laws in order to avoid the risk of discrimination suits. When people are asked to disperse because they are loitering, law enforcement officers must be able to point to a concrete reason for the order.