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Loitering seems to have incredibly vague definition, according to Wikipedia. It seems that it's illegal, even if you don't seem to be doing anything wrong. In the US, there are signs to this effect, which came to a surprise to me. Can I actually get into trouble if I, well, loiter, whatever loose definition you use?

enter image description here

Photo is from personal archive.

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  • Undoubtedly an interesting question, but what's the link with this site's topic? Feb 10, 2013 at 21:02
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    @MarcelC.: He's obviously a tourist who doesn't want to end up arrested for a vague law Feb 11, 2013 at 1:50
  • that specific photo indicates private property (or a government installation, not quite sure how the USPS would be treated) so they can certainly set rules about what you are allowed to do on the site. As a security measure, I'd expect them to try to get rid of people hanging out around the gates and possibly tipping off accomplices about vehicles leaving there that can then be ambushed and robbed elsewhere for example.
    – jwenting
    Feb 11, 2013 at 12:08
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    @jwenting: it's hardly the only "No loitering" sign I have seen, and many are without the indication of private property or special security status. Feb 11, 2013 at 13:47
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    @mindcorrosive true, but many companies will have reason to not want strangers on their property and after 9/11 many cities and other governments no longer care all that much about what's legal when it comes to "protection against potential terrorists". Just walk around London with a camera and aim it at a police car or underground train, you're in custody and have your camera confiscated very quickly despite there being no law giving anyone rights to do so.
    – jwenting
    Feb 11, 2013 at 14:08

4 Answers 4

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It depends what you're doing, where you're doing it, and (from personal experience) whether you look like a member of $racial_minority.

The loitering laws are in place so that the police can ask you for ID if they think you may be doing something illegal. For example, someone "loitering" on a parking lot can be looking for cars to break into. However, if you're stopped by an officer in the parking lot, show them your ID, and then tell them that you're looking for your car because you're not used to such immense parking lots, not only will all be fine, they may even help you figure out where you parked.

A Florida lawyer explains that

You can charged with loitering or prowling, if you are in a place and at a time where normal, law-abiding citizens are not commonly found and which could be construed as posing a threat to property or to others. If you are discovered by a police officer who asks you to identify yourself and you refuse, or you try to conceal your presence, or you immediately flee the scene, the officer may have grounds to charge you with loitering since you did not adequately justify your presence at the location.

Thus, as long as you can identify yourself, you should do fine as a tourist, since you can always justify your presence with "I'm so glad to see you, officer. I'm totally lost". Note that won't work quite as well if you're in a tent where they don't want you to be camping

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    Yup. I've had an encounter with a policeman that way--hanging around a construction site after dark. A construction site (a whole subdivision, not just one house) after dark is roads devoid of cars--a perfect place to let a new driver get practice safely. He understood, no problem. Feb 11, 2013 at 1:53
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    @LorenPechtel A large parking lot is just as effective and safer for the car. :)
    – Karlson
    Feb 12, 2013 at 15:42
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    @Karlson: Of course you start with the parking lot. However, parking lots lack streets. The construction site provided a more realistic driving situation. There were multiple blocks worth of territory with nothing of importance about. Feb 13, 2013 at 3:10
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    @LorenPechtel And you even got to practise being pulled over by the cops! Dec 17, 2014 at 14:40
  • suggestion: change "$racial_minority" to "a racial minority" Apr 21, 2023 at 16:56
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In America, they don't want people to do anything that disrupts commercial activity. So begging is "out" for example. And "loitering" would be seen in a similar light.

There are signs at many establishments that read something like: "Patrons only, violators [or "loiterers"] are subject to arrest.

If you are in a store, you should be doing business with the store (or look like you are). Stores, and even libraries don't want people sleeping on the premises, or otherwise taking up space if you are not there for the stated purpose of the premise because they want to cater to genuine "customers." That also applies to places like construction sites.

In Nevada, it is a felony to use a computer in a casino to calculate odds (thereby reducing the casino's advantage). Not exactly "loitering," but it does illustrate a point about the "pro-commercial" nature of the American legal system.

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    This doesn't answer the question, which is about the consequences of loitering, not about whether you can sleep in a store or library or use a computer in a casino. Dec 17, 2014 at 14:42
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    This just seems like a borderline anti-American rant than an answer.
    – Andy
    Feb 24, 2017 at 1:05
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    @Andy: I am an American, and I am just trying to tell travelers "how it is" in certain parts of the country (even though it probably shouldn't be the case). And why (commercial reasons.) This is particularly true of a country that just elected the most commercially minded President in recent history (although my answer predates the 2016 election).
    – Tom Au
    Feb 24, 2017 at 1:35
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    @Andy: I decapitalized "felony" to tone down the comment. Otherwise, I'm telling it like it is. What I said is objectively true.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 24, 2017 at 2:41
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    Get real!. This stuff happens in many parts of America every day of the week. (Probably not in Europe.) And America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, both in absolute numbers, and relative to population (only China and India have higher populations, and they have fewer people incarcerated). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_incarceration_rate
    – Tom Au
    Mar 20, 2017 at 15:02
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Yes, you can be arrested for this; you usually won't, but usually isn't always, and you won't know until it's too late. The entire point of such laws existing in the first place is to give the authorities a legal justification to be able to arrest someone, harass them, or leave them alone, whichever they prefer, at a whim, so long as the target is within the specified location.

Note that begging, being homeless, and in some cases even just looking like you're really poor, are all common primary targets for such laws, because passing a "no loitering" ordinance and then enforcing it on anyone who looks homeless (and on no one else) is much better for public relations than a "jail time for being poor" law, so if you are going to be in such a place, avoid looking like you might be homeless, as it will substantially increase the odds of arrest.

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You can wander about anywhere at anytime of the day or night without raising the slightest suspicion simply by taking along a dog.

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