City IndexWhat are the penalties for loitering around the world?
This week, City Index examines the very blurred line between “standing around” and “breaking the law.”
Though many U.S. loitering laws have been found to be unconstitutionally vague, or struck down on First Amendment grounds, it’s still illegal to loiter in public in 35 percent of U.S. cities, according to a 2014 report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. Loitering– which is defined by Newport, RI, for example, as "loafing or standing about aimlessly, and also including the colloquial expression 'hanging around'"– is a classic “quality of life” offense as part of urban “broken windows” policing. Consistent with those tactics, “loitering” is often paired with “loitering plus” ordinances like “loitering with intent” to panhandle, solicit prostitution, or sell drugs. Though many of these laws have narrowed in scope, their effect of criminalizing poverty and homelessness remains the same.
So too has their efficacy in policing unrest. Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri who weren’t arrested for “manner of walking along roadway,” were often booked for violating the city’s broad loitering ordinance, which can be applied to anyone who “obstructs or encumbers the passage of persons or vehicles upon, through or into any street” and ignores a police order to move.
How much regional variance is there to the loitering ordinance? Find out below, with an international look at the legal grey area that is being a person in a place.
We chose 9 cities from across the globe, from New Delhi to Adelaide, to retrieve our data.
$500 and 90 days in jail
In 2012, New York City was ordered to pay out $15,000,000 in a class action settlement for enforcing loitering laws that had been struck down as far back as 1983. Specifically, these laws banned loitering to panhandle, loitering in bus or train stations, and loitering in search of a sex partner. Lawyer Katie Rosenfeld, who argued on behalf of the claimants, told the New York Times that “all of the people who got charged under these statutes had not very much power: homeless people, gay people, marginalized people, vulnerable people.”
In New York, loitering is a class B misdemeanor that can be brought against people gambling in public, selling things, or busking on a subway platform without authorization. In October of last year, a busker arrested and charged with loitering was later described as a "transit recidivist" by an NYPD spokesperson, though Gothamist heard “no mention of him impeding transit activities.” The Times found that in the first two months of 2014—the same time elderly Korean patrons of a McDonald’s in Flushing were fighting for their right to sit there all day—arrests of peddlers and panhandlers on subways more than tripled those of the same period in 2013.
Loitering in New York State can also apply to anyone who “remains in any place with one or more persons for the purpose of unlawfully using or possessing a controlled substance,” or does so for purposes of soliciting prostitution.
Republic of Singapore
$1500 USD or 90 days
The “Rogues and Vagabonds” section of Singapore’s Public Order and Nuisances Act can apply to anyone in a public place suspected of having “intent to commit a seizable and non-bailable offense.” In recent years, this law has been applied to Chinese nationals accused of theft, one man overusing church showers, and Hong Kong citizens arrested on suspicion of involvement in a “transnational housebreaking syndicate.”
Three months in jail
Under the Delhi Police Act, “lying or loitering in any street, yard or other place, being a reputed thief and without being able to give a satisfactory account of himself” between sunset and sunrise can “be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three months.” Technically, anyone dressed in frayed clothing is bookable for “loitering with intent” under the Vagrancy Act, which was identified by Indian legal experts in 2014 as one of the many ludicrous laws inherited from India’s period of colonial rule.
In 2009, Taipei’s Ministry of Transportation and Communication passed a law levying fees between $1,500 and $7,500 NTD (between $50 and $250 USD) on homeless people who fail to comply with police warnings to leave public transit areas even while Taiwan’s stagnating economy has made the “sight of homeless people holding placards for elite properties at street corners... increasingly common” in the capital, according to a 2014 feature in the Taipei Times. A Social Welfare FAQ on the city government’s homepage instructs visitors to report “begging behaviors” to the police.
$4,000 USD or 90 days
South Australia’s Summary Offences Act holds that a police officer may request a group of people disperse if he or she “believes or apprehends on reasonable grounds” that a “breach of the peace” or obstruction of traffic has occurred or is likely to occur in the area. Those who refuse to leave can face a maximum penalty of $1,250 AUD ($1,000 USD) or 3 months imprisonment, which climbs to $5,000 AUD ($4,000 USD) if they’re part of a “prescribed class,” which can include drug offenders or people under firearm prohibition orders. (Meanwhile, a McDonald’s on the outskirts of Sydney has taken to playing a “range of classical and opera music” at night to deter young people from loitering around the restaurant.)
Originally known as the Police Offenses Act when it was passed in 1953, the law was “mainly used by the police in controlling the activities of homosexuals prone to frequenting public places, ‘peeping-tom’ offenders, suspected milk can thieves and other nocturnal nuisances,” according to the 1964 Adelaide Law Review.
$7,800 and five years
England, birthplace of the vagrancy law, is now a placewhere you are free to loiter within certain narrow conditions (though you should watch out for sidewalk spikes). The UK’s “suspected person law,” a stop-and-search “loitering with intent” program that was largely used to harass minorities, died in 1981. Still, you can be arrested in the UK for willfully obstructing free passage along a highway, begging, or “causing harassment, alarm, or distress,” which come with level 2 and level 3 fines of up to £1,000 ($1,500).
Also, the stipulations of the recently expanded Crime and Disorder Act can get you labelled with an ASBO, or Anti-Social Behavior Order, which can augment these penalties to, say, five years in jail for begging.
$4,200 and six months
Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2003 Internal Security Law means that young people convicted of loitering in stairwells or the entries to apartment blocks can face up to two months in prison. It also punishes squatters and beggars operating in groups with six months in jail and a fine of €3,750 ($4,200). Sarkozy’s law came bundled with a number of “broken windows”-esque codes meant to cleanse public public space in France, including penalties for prostitutes found to be “passively soliciting” clients through their “dress or attitude.” As of 2006, policies like the Internal Security Law enjoyed “popular support,” according sociological researcher Phil Hubbard.
$25 or 90 days in jail
This law was recently used to detain two Al Jazeera journalists covering the 2015 presidential election. They’d been reporting from the site of Nigerian military operations against Boko Haram.
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