Ask a Cop: What Constitutes Loitering?

Have a question for the Sheriff's Office? Let us know.

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

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