Vagrancy Law & Legal Definition


In legal terminology, vagrancy refers to the offense of persons who are without visible means of support or domicile while able to work. State laws and municipal ordinances punishing vagrancy often also cover loitering, associating with reputed criminals, prostitution, and drunkenness. The punishment is usually a fine or several months in jail. Instead of arresting vagrants, local officials often attempt to induce them to move on. Vagrants are often transient persons who move from place to place and don't remain in any one place for a significant length of time. Lawmakers have claimed that these laws are necessary to preserve the public order, but critics claim that they are just a way for economically and politically powerful people to exert control over the lower classes. Recently, homeless people have gained some political clout through groups advocating on their behalf.

Vagrancy laws have come under constitutional attack, since being poor is not a crime under the Constitution. The statutory language was often held to be vague and overbroad, in violation of the due process requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A vagrancy law might be declared too vague if the definition of a vagrant is not detailed enough. Police had too much discretion to arrest people based upon appearance and suspicious characteristics. The fear was that the laws would be misused to make arbitrary arrests to harass unpopular groups or silence opposing political views. U.S. vagrancy laws generally punish the status of being poor and unemployed and not some overt act. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as too vague a loitering statute which punished people for failure to show credible identification upon police request. This case curbed police use of vagrancy and loitering statutes to harass the poor. However, other laws have been enacted, such as camping or sidewalk ordinances, which are often aimed at controlling homeless persons. The following are examples of local camping and sidewalk ordinances:

"Unlawful Camping. It shall be unlawful for any person to camp, occupy camp facilities or use camp paraphernalia in the following areas, except as otherwise provided:

  1. Any street;
  2. Any public parking lot or public area, improved or unimproved. "

"Those sidewalk activities proscribed within the specified zone include riding a bicycle, scooter, roller skates, or skateboard; unloading or loading a vehicle where safety does not necessitate obstructing the sidewalk; lying on the sidewalk or placing any object on the sidewalk, sitting on the public sidewalk or on any object on the sidewalk for more than one hour in any two-hour time period; placing or maintaining a bench without a license; leaving any belongings unattended; allowing dogs, guard cats, or pigs to go without a leash; allowing snakes outside of a cage; and not muzzling any animal with a “vicious propensity.”