What Are Loitering and Prowling?

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Loitering and prowling are acts involving being where one does not belong. Most cities and states prohibit the two actions. While loiterers and prowlers are similar, their legal definitions differ in some respects.

Loitering is remaining in a public place for an extended period. Statutes banning loitering state that the goal is to stop prostitution, drug dealing and panhandling. The laws also are used to arrest drunk people, remove those who block entrances to buildings and deal with public nuisances.

It is illegal to refuse to "move along" at a police officer's request. Even people who keep moving can be arrested if they remain in the same area to beg, gamble, sell drugs, engage in sexual activities or commit other prohibited acts. Another example of loitering is staying in a business, school, bus station or other establishment after being asked to leave.

In some jurisdictions, the law treats loitering and prowling the same way. Other cities and states regard prowling as the more sinister of the two crimes. It has been defined as "lurking" in a place while planning to commit a crime.

Loitering might be prohibited only during certain hours or in specified parts of town. Laws often empower officers to confront anyone they suspect of representing a threat to public safety. If the subject fails to provide identification, he can expect to be arrested.

These laws are controversial because the homeless and other disadvantaged people are most likely to be charged. However, the police and public-safety advocates say the regulations are needed to prevent criminal activity.