The term loitering refers to lingering or hanging around in a public area without any apparent purpose for being there. In some areas loitering is illegal. Laws of each jurisdiction define how long a person might hang around before it is considered too long. If a person loiters with the intent to commit another crime, the charges can be more serious than the usually minor crime of loitering. To explore this concept, consider the following loitering definition.

Definition of Loitering


  1. To linger in a public place without purpose, to move slowly, making purposeless stops


1300-1350 Middle English loteren

What is Loitering

In the United States, the crime of loitering is most commonly an ordinance of cities and towns, rather than state law. The purpose of loitering ordinances and statutes is to enable law enforcement to take action aimed at reducing such activities as disturbing the peace, solicitation of prostitution, aggressive begging or panhandling, public drunkenness, and drug dealing in front of or near public places.

Early ordinances and statutes sought to punish people caught loitering more seriously than today. This is because there were legal challenges brought over the years, causing changes in the way loitering is handled. Law enforcement officers often make a distinction between loitering with no intent to do other harm, and loitering with the intent to commit a crime, or to cause a threat to public safety.

As an example of loitering, when a group of friends leaving a coffee house hang around on the sidewalk talking before heading home, they are unlikely to be challenged or penalized. If, however, the group remained on the sidewalk in front of the establishment for an extended period of time, becoming raucous or out of control, the group of friends might charged with loitering. It is most likely that the group would simply be asked to move along, rather than being cited or taken into custody.

Examples of Loitering Statutes

Loitering statutes and ordinances vary by jurisdiction. Most specify that, if a public place or business posts a no-loitering notice that is clearly visible, loiterers are on notice, and police can take action. The following examples of loitering statutes present different ways of defining the crime of loitering.

Example of loitering statute in Massachusetts:

“Whoever without right enters, remains in or loiters within a station, waiting room, or terminal of a public transportation facility, or upon the platform, stairs, grounds or other premises of a public transportation facility, after having been forbidden so to do either by notice posted thereon, or by the person who has the lawful control of said premises, or by a railroad, railway or railway express officer or by any police officer, shall be punished by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars and may be arrested without a warrant by such officer and kept in custody in a convenient place, not more than twenty-four hours, Sundays and legal holidays excepted, at or before the expiration of which time he shall be taken before a proper court or magistrate and proceeded against according to law.”

Example of loitering statute in Alabama:

“A person commits the crime of loitering if he:

  1. Loiters, remains or wanders about in a public place for the purpose of begging; or

  2. Loiters or remains in a public place for the purpose of gambling; or

  3. Loiters or remains in a public place for the purpose of engaging or soliciting another person to engage in prostitution or deviate sexual intercourse; or

  4. Being masked, loiters, remains or congregates in a public place;”

Loitering by Minors

In some areas, kids gather together simply to hang out and do nothing, many choosing to loiter with friends, rather than attend school, others get together after school. In an effort to deter truancy and disturbing the peace, as well as such crimes as shoplifting and vandalism, many jurisdictions have specific ordinances dealing with loitering by minors.

In these jurisdictions, minors are generally prohibited from loitering in certain areas, such as parking lots, sidewalks, roads and alleys, and in front of businesses. In addition, many jurisdictions set specific hours in which minors are allowed to congregate in public places. Loitering by minors is often punishable by small fines and/or community service. In some situations, the minor’s parents may be held liable for their child’s fines or damages.

Penalties for Loitering

The penalties for loitering are often lenient, as it is not considered a significant crime. Sometimes loitering has the potential to incite crimes that are more serious, however. Typically, a first time offender who is not engaging in another crime is given a warning. Other penalties for loitering include fines and community service. If a person is repeatedly found to be loitering, or cited for loitering, the penalties can become more severe. If a person loitering is doing so in commission of another crime, such as prostitution, loitering may lead to additional, more serious charges.

How to Loiter Without Getting into Trouble

Simply hanging out with friends isn’t something that people should get into trouble over, though sometimes people gathering together fail to realize they are disturbing other people. Being aware of certain circumstances may help ensure the police don’t become involved in a friendly get-together, and everyone has a good time.

  • Look for Signs – Many businesses, institutions, and even private homes post no-loitering signs in an attempt to dissuade people from congregating in their space. This may be a tip that those people are likely to call the police if people are hanging around with no cause to be there.
  • Be Quiet – Being loud, obnoxious, drunk, or intimidating others passing by are quite possibly the quickest route to having someone call the police. Taking care that the group doesn’t get too loud, doesn’t spout obnoxious curses, and their behavior doesn’t devolve into disorderly conduct is likely to help.
  • Don’t Break the Law – Many police and even establishments don’t have a problem with people hanging out in general. They do have a problem when people hanging around become disruptive, or break the law. Panhandling, prostitution, sexually harassing passersby, and dealing or using drugs is sure to attract the attention of the police.
  • Hang Out Where It’s Legal – Most cities and towns have designated areas where people are expected and encouraged to hang out and have fun together. Public parks, town squares, and even shopping malls have tables, benches, and other places to congregate.

Loitering Ordinance Challenged in the Supreme Court

In 1993, police arrested Jesus Morales for loitering after he refused to leave when ordered to disperse by a police officer. The city of Chicago, where Morales was arrested, had enacted a Gang Congregation Ordinance, which prohibited gang members from loitering together in public places. The ordinance allowed police, if they observed any known or suspected gang member loitering with other people, to order them to leave. If the gang member didn’t obey the order, he could be arrested and charged.

Morales challenged his arrest, and the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the city ordinance did indeed violate people’s right to due process of law, as the Gang Congregation Ordinance was vague in wording, and severely restricted personal liberties. The city of Chicago appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the ordinance was so vague that a reasonable person could not determine which activities were illegal, and which were not.

Justice John Paul Stevens stated in his decision:

“[The] ordinance’s definition of loitering as “to remain in any one place with no apparent purpose” does not give people adequate notice of what is prohibited and what is permitted, even if a person does not violate the law until he refuses to disperse. “‘[A] law fails to meet the requirements of the Due Process Clause if it is so vague and standardless that it leaves the public uncertain as to the conduct it prohibits,'” noted Justice Stevens, “[i]f the loitering is in fact harmless and innocent, the dispersal order itself is an unjustified impairment of liberty.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense. 
  • Due Process – The fundamental, constitutional right to fair legal proceedings in which all parties will be given notice of the proceedings, and have an opportunity to be heard.  
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.  
  • Intent – A resolve to perform an act for a specific purpose; a resolution to use a particular means to a specific end.  
  • Warrant – A writ issued by a court or other legal official authorizing law enforcement or other agency to make an arrest, search a premises, or take some other action related to the administration of justice.

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