Ask a Cop: What Constitutes Loitering?

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Is there anything you have ever wanted to know from the police department? Well, this is your chance to ask. We will be teaming up with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies from around the county to answer your questions.

Whether you have a question about certain laws and how they might affect you, your family or friends or how to stay safe in certain situations, we want you to ask them. Every week we will run one question and answer. To submit a question, email Shannon.burkey@patch.com.


What is the deal with loitering laws? Are they still on the books? Are they ever enforced?


Black's Law Dictionary defines loitering as remaining “in a certain place for no apparent reason.” Loitering was unlawful in California until the court reviewed a legal challenge and determined the law was unconstitutionally vague because it gave the police too much discretion to stop and interrogate a suspect and expressed concern the law may compromise the constitutional right to freedom of movement noting that, “Vagrancy statutes cannot turn otherwise innocent conduct into a crime.”

In the case the court reviewed, Edward Lawson, an African-American man, was frequently subjected to police contacts in San Diego County where he lived. He was detained or arrested approximately 15 times within 18 months, was prosecuted twice, and was convicted once under Penal Code§647(e), which required persons who loiter or wander on the streets to identify themselves and account for their presence when requested by a peace officer to do so. Lawson challenged the conviction, which was reversed by the higher courts in 1983.

While the mere act of loitering is no longer unlawful, there are local and state laws that prohibit highly specific behaviors that have led to problems such as blocking a public sidewalk, which prevents public use, stopping vehicle traffic, asking for money within a certain distance of an ATM machine, prohibiting sex offenders from schools and surrounding areas, public intoxication, unlawful lodging, and remaining on private property after being asked to leave, to name a few. These laws attempt to balance the rights of individuals with the needs for public safety. Law enforcement and communities must continue to work together to identify and solve ongoing problems.

~Steve Carney, Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office

omar October 02, 2012 at 03:12 PM
We're all loitering Waitng to die
Cathy P. October 02, 2012 at 03:40 PM
@omar: sounds like you need a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich ;))) to lighten that mood...
Jacob Bourne (Editor) October 02, 2012 at 04:22 PM
But there are still "No Loitering" signs. So are those some of those illegal, homemade signs we heard about last week? http://capitola.patch.com/articles/ask-a-cop-illegally-posted-traffic-signs
Eve Roberson October 02, 2012 at 08:56 PM
An important exception is given to day laborers. The US Supreme Court ruled in Feb. 2012 they have a constitutional right to congregate on sidewalks while looking for work from passing cars. This seems to give them immunity from some of the other rules now on the books regarding loitering, does it not?
Ahhhh Huaaa October 03, 2012 at 12:14 AM
So if 20 day laborers stand out in front of my house and try to flag down work it's OK? Does this apply to hookers as well?
HizDesign October 03, 2012 at 12:18 AM
lol IF 20 day laborers, or 20 anyone, stood out in front of my house, I'd probably just ask them kindly if they wouldn't mind moving down the street just a bit...it worked last time.....no reason it shoudn't again :)
Watzon McWats October 03, 2012 at 01:31 AM
I'm curious, what can you do if you see a group of obvious gang members (colors, gang tattoos, etc) congrigating on your street or hanging out in front of a liquor store or whatever? Is there any cause for a cop to tell them to get lost? If I call the police, will they even show up? (I ask this with an understanding that people are free to assemble and use public spaces)
HizDesign October 03, 2012 at 01:40 AM
Just guessing: even a group of known gang members would be allowed to congregate and hang out.....only exception I can think of (again, please people don't send me ugly letters or comments it JUST an uneducated guess) is if a known gang member is on probation/parole and one of the conditions of that is he/she is not to associate with known gang members. But who am I to say lololol
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