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What is Loitering?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon931085 — On Feb 07, 2014

In UK it is even prohibited to simply sit on the benches that are located next to the shops like Co-Op, Asda, etc. for more than 15-20 minutes. Imagine if you're waiting for someone but don't want to go in, one of the store clerks will come out and ask you to relocate yourself. This is stupid. As long as no one is causing any trouble, simply standing somewhere for a long time shouldn't be an issue.

By Crispety — On Aug 31, 2011

@Oasis11- You know you can get a loitering ticket for even being in a public park after the park closed. You can also get a ticket if the city imposes a curfew and you are out and about. These loitering laws are really on the books to keep people safe as well.

Hanging around a public park or a business parking lot afterhours really invites crime and puts people in a vulnerable position.

By oasis11 — On Aug 30, 2011

@BrickBack - That is amazing. I think that by law panhandling in that way might also be a public nuisance especially if the panhandlers were in the street. They could also disrupt traffic and even get hurt in an accident.

I used to work in an office that specifically had a sign that read no solicitation and no loitering and would you believe we would still get people trying to sell us stuff and hanging around in our building. It was really uncomfortable. We finally got tired of it one day and called the police and the people involved were issued a loitering ticket.

I know that people need to make money, but telemarketing is probably a better way to go in my opinion.

By BrickBack — On Aug 30, 2011

I was reading about a town in Florida that had a no loitering statue for private property and was being challenged by a panhandler.

There was this man that owned a restaurant that had an outdoor café but was in contact with neighborhood panhandlers that detracted from the restaurant experience. The patrons at the restaurant did not want to have people begging for money while they ate their meal, but the panhandlers said that were actually in the street which was not part of the restaurant’s property.

The problem was that the restaurant felt that the panhandlers were loitering because they were directly in front of their restaurant. The town later passed a city wide ordinance banning panhandling altogether. Many cities are now doing this and imposing fines for panhandling, but the problem is that the panhandlers have no money so how are they going to pay the fines?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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