What Is the Penal Code for Loitering in California?

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Loitering, by general definition, is not a crime in California. However, if there's intent to commit a crime while lingering in a public place or if loitering occurs on private property without permission from the property owner, you may very well be in violation of California state law. Knowing what circumstances make loitering unlawful can avoid a possible arrest, a fine or even jail time. Loitering laws in California are in place to balance the rights of individuals and businesses with public safety needs.

What Is Loitering?

The basic definition of loitering is to stand idly about and linger without any purpose. Examples of loitering include passing the time by people-watching while standing on a street corner; hanging out with a group of friends and talking by the entrance of a restaurant; sleeping in a public park; or sitting on the stoop of an apartment building. Depending on where you are and the circumstances surrounding these seemingly innocent acts, they can be deemed unlawful. Every state, city and town in the U.S. has statutes or ordinances by which law enforcement can arrest someone who is on public or private property without a specific purpose for being there and refuses to move along after being asked to do so. In California, there are particular behaviors attached to the act of loitering that make it a criminal act.

Public and Private Spaces in California

Public spaces – indoor or outdoor spaces publicly owned and for use by everyone – are protected by California law so that they can remain safe and operational for their intended purposes. Law enforcement keeps a watchful eye over public spaces to ensure they do not become hubs for criminal activity. However, public spaces in any given area often experience more criminal activity than does private property, and loitering in a public space can be seen as unlawful if criminal intent is in place. An alley, a park, a sidewalk, a street and a library are all examples of public places.

Private spaces are properties that are owned by individuals or businesses. They, too, are protected by California law. Often, companies and other private property owners put up no-loitering signs to discourage people from hanging around without purpose and attempting criminal activity. A person doing so may face charges of trespassing or loitering, depending on the circumstance.

The History of Loitering Laws in California

Loitering on its own was unlawful in California until 1983, when the case of Edward Lawson went before the U.S. Supreme Court. Lawson, an African-American man who was known as the "I-5 Stroller" took numerous walks in so-called white neighborhoods around the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego. This led to his detainment or arrest 15 times in only 18 months. After being prosecuted twice and convicted once, he challenged the law, which stated that anyone stopped by officers must identify themselves to law enforcement and give reasons for their actions.

The court determined that the California Penal Code was unconstitutionally vague and gave law enforcement too much power in stopping and interrogating citizens. The court also said the law compromised the constitutional right to freedom of movement, stating that "vagrancy statutes cannot turn otherwise innocent conduct into a crime."

Loitering Laws in California

Loitering falls under California Penal Code section 647, which is a catch-all of various public nuisance or disorderly conduct crimes. While such crimes are mostly minor offenses, they can still lead to considerable jail time or fines, especially for repeat offenders.

Under California Penal Code section 647(h), the act of loitering may be considered by law enforcement to be criminal if these additional elements are in place:

  • Unlawful delaying, prowling, lingering or wandering onto someone else's property. 
  • The person suspected of loitering has no legal right to be on the property.
  • The person suspected of loitering intends to commit a crime on the property if the opportunity arises or if the purpose is to engage in criminal activity if the opportunity arises.

Other behaviors can make loitering a crime, including blocking a public sidewalk; stopping traffic; panhandling or asking for money within a certain distance of a bank machine; a minor standing outside of a convenience store with the purpose or intent of buying alcohol from an adult; public drug or alcohol intoxication; unlawful lodging; or refusing to leave private property after being asked to do so.

Two other loitering laws that exist are California Penal Code sections 647(i) and 647(j), both of which prohibit against specific acts that can violate privacy.

PC 647(i) is a "peeking" law, which exists to safeguard a business' or individual's privacy. This law is intended to protect against voyeurs, nosy neighbors and stalkers, among others. Unlawful peeking or peeking while loitering is illegal and described as peeking into a structure while idling on private property.

PC 647(j) is California's invasion of privacy law. It prohibits using devices such as telescopes or binoculars to invade a person's privacy, secretly photographing or videotaping someone under or through his or her clothing for sexual arousal or gratification, and secretly photographing or videotaping someone in a private room to view that person's body or undergarments.

Loitering to Solicit Prostitutes in California

Under California Penal Code section 653.22, it is unlawful for a person to loiter in an attempt to solicit prostitutes. Someone who has not specifically engaged in the act of soliciting prostitutes can still face arrest if law enforcement believes there is an intent to engage in prostitution evidenced by acting in a manner and under circumstances that openly demonstrate the purpose of inducing, enticing or soliciting prostitution, or procuring another to commit prostitution. Circumstances that may lead to a determination of loitering with the intent to commit prostitution are:

  • Beckoning, stopping, conversing with or attempting to converse with a person in the interest of soliciting prostitution.
  • Stopping or trying to stop vehicles by hailing, waving or attempting to engage anyone in a vehicle in an effort to solicit prostitution.
  • Circling an area and repeatedly beckoning, contacting or trying to contact or stop pedestrians or other motorists in the interest of soliciting prostitution.

Loitering Laws in California Regarding Schools

California Penal Code section 653(b) makes it a criminal offense to loiter in or around a school if that person is:

  • Delaying, lingering or spending idle time near a children's school or near a public area where children congregate.
  • Entering, re-entering or remaining at a children's school or a public space where children gather within 72 hours of having been asked to leave by the school's chief administrative official.
  • At or near a school or public place where children congregate with no lawful purpose.
  • Intending to commit a crime if the opportunity arises.

Loitering to Buy or Sell Drugs in California

California Penal Code section 11532 makes it unlawful for anyone to loiter with the intent of buying or selling illegal drugs. Circumstances that determine if a person has engaged in unlawful loitering include:

  • Acting as a look-out around an illegal drug transaction.
  • Transferring small objects for currency while attempting to avoid attention.
  • Using signals or specific language to buy or sell drugs.
  • Beckoning, stopping, attempting to stop or engaging in conversations indicative of buying or selling illegal drugs with passersby.
  • Repeatedly passing or receiving money or small objects from passersby.

Consequences for Illegally Loitering in California

A charge of loitering can result in consequences relative to the specific act committed. A person facing a loitering charge is subject to up to six months in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. A second conviction of loitering could result in the doubling of the initial jail sentence to a maximum one-year county jail term and a maximum penalty of $2,000.

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