Is vagrancy a crime?

Continuing the discussion from Austin Texas, Proposition B:

If I remember correctly idleness was considered bad for character in late medieval and early modern times. Being unemployed may have been associated with lawlessness or criminal tendencies. On that basis vagrancy was historically considered a crime, and the unemployed homeless (“vagabonds”, “rogues”) would be arrested then either imprisoned, branded, or conscripted into the military or forced labor.

I thought this was all history. I understand old laws may still be on the books but I thought they were ruled unconstitutionally vague in the U.S., and naturally I expect the rest of the western world to be far more understanding of the plight of homelessness. I wouldn’t expect a member EU state to enforce vagrancy statutes in refugee camps, for example…

In a recent discussion pkbites surprised me by claiming vagrancy is still a crime or offense in many places,

Where and to what extent is vagrancy a crime today?


See also:

Can you still be arrested for Vagrancy? (January 2001)
Vagrancy Laws: Are They Federal Or Do They Vary… (April 2009)
Public Vagrancy (“Is it against the law to lie down in public?”) (October 2008)

It’s a crime in Massachusetts

There’s also a series of statutes about Tramps.

Vagrancy is not a crime at common law.

However, in various places and at various times it has been criminalised by statute. England and several other European countries adopted laws criminalising vagrancy in one way or another in response to the Black Death - the shrinking population led to a labour shortage, and vagrancy was seen as exacerbating that. There was a further bout of criminalisation in the sixteenth century, following the supression of monasteries and the growth of poor laws designed to substitute for monastic efforts to relieve property. Vagrants were liable to become a charge on the parish, so vagrancy became punishable by whipping and expulsion from the parish.

So, the extent to which, and the reasons for which, vagrancy is criminalised will vary from place to place and from time to time. Culturally, there’s a tension between attitudes which on the one hand portray vagrants as workshy, irresponsible, to blame for their own misfortune, a burden on decent propertied taxpayers and, on the other hand, see vagrants as unfortunate, the victims of circumstance, the proper object of charity, etc, or even sometimes as holy, seeking to reject worldly values in favour of spiritual freedoms, etc — the mendicant friars were vagrants, for example, travelling from place to place and surviving on handouts. So enthusiasm for vagrancy laws or their enforcement can vary a lot.

Ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachussets. Craig Benefit v. City of Cambridge & others, 424 Mass. 918 (1997).

"We conclude that G. L. c. 272, s. 66, violates the First Amendment because it bans constitutionally protected speech in traditional public forums. […]

The statute intrudes not only on the right of free communication, but it also implicates and suppresses an even broader right-the right to engage fellow human beings with the hope of receiving aid and compassion. The streets and public areas are quintessential public forums, not because they are a particularly convenient platform for expression, but because they are the necessary, essential public spaces that connect our individual private spaces, from which we legitimately may exclude others and likewise be excluded, but from which we almost all must inevitably emerge from time to time. If such a basic transaction as peacefully requesting or giving casual help to the needy may be forbidden in all such places, then we may belong to the government that regulates us and not the other way around."


Also ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachussets. Note that this case is substantially older and refers to an older version of section 66 (struck down in the same ruling). Nevertheless it invalidates the same section 63 you cite today. Joseph Alegata v. Commonwealth (and four companion cases), 353 Mass. 287 (1967).

"As the New York Court of Appeals pointed out in the Fenster case, vagrancy statutes today are used only against “alcoholic derelicts and other unfortunates, whose only crime, if any, is against themselves, and whose main offense usually consists in their leaving the environs of skid row and disturbing by their presence the sensibilities of residents of nicer parts of the community, or suspected criminals, with respect to whom the authorities do not have enough evidence to make a proper arrest or secure a conviction on the crime suspected.” Persons of the former group should not be classed as criminals. Idleness and poverty should not be treated as a criminal offence. See Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660. As to persons of the latter group (those vaguely suspected of criminal conduct) the statute may not be used as a short cut to avoid due process requirements.

We hold that the challenged portions of Section 66 are void on their face as repugnant to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and to art. 12 of our Declaration of Rights in that they seek to make criminal conduct which cannot fairly be classed as such and are an invalid exercise of the police power.[…]

A person may violate Section 63 if he “roves about from place to place . . . living without . . . visible means of support.” Essentially this does not differ materially from the crime of vagrancy defined in Section 66. Thus, for the reasons set forth in the Patch case, and on the same grounds, we hold that this portion of the statute is unconstitutional."


From wiki:
In Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 (1972), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a Florida vagrancy law was unconstitutional because it was too vague to be understood.[25]

It is a crime in Wisconsin and I know of no ruling overturning it.

However, homeless people aren’t usually just charged with vagrancy. They are charged a lot for open containers in public, public urination, Lewd and lascivious behavior, prowling, criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, harassment, and theft. They are usually charged with something related to their behavior and not their status. Vagrancy charges being the sole charge usually results from aggressive panhandling.

Slight hijack…

What does this mean? Sounds like something is not against the law but the government will still arrest you for it. So somehow it is against the law yet it’s not.

Some lawyer may want to nitpick the language but that is of little concern to you while you rot in jail.

I don’t know of any state that recognizes common law when it comes to criminal statutes. So even bringing it up was pointless.

No. It means that vagrancy isn’t against the law, until the legislature enacts a law saying “now it’s against the law”.

(Unlike murder, say, which was against the law even before the legislature stepped in.)

The OP isn’t confined to the US and in fact specifically mentions the rest of the world, EU states, etc. There are certainly jurisdictions in which common law crimes persist.

Even in jurisdictions that have codified the criminal law, it’s relevant to know that vagrancy wasn’t a crime at common law. It means that each jurisdiction that has criminalised vagrancy will have started from a blank sheet when it comes to defining the crime and its consequences; they won’t have been constrained or influenced by the scope of a pre-existing common law offence. Plus, it makes it more likely that there will be jurisdictions that haven’t criminalised it at all.

So if you travel from place to place you’re a “tramp” and it’s legal for you to beg, but if you beg in the town you’re from you’re a “vagrant” subject to arrest.

I’d be curious to know what the state’s logic was in establishing that distinction.

How much does a Begging license go for nowadays?

Shoot, sorry about that cite. I’m curious why that’s not mentioned on the official legislature page? It’s seems like the kind of thing you’d want to mention when displaying the official laws of the state.

Twenty years ago a tattoo artist buddy of mine took a vacation from work, taking all his savings and hitchhiking to Atlanta from Pittsburgh to get some ink. He planned on three sessions on three consecutive days, then a bus ticket home.

Turns out the ink burned through every penny he had. Hitching, he got picked up for vagrancy, spending two weeks in a filthy cell and picking up lice.

He eventually got back to Pittsburgh a changed man who, to this day, keeps his entire body shaved and does everything he can to fuck with the police. (Coincidentally, the tattoo artist Jon sought out in Atlanta came to Pittsburgh later that year, making Jon’s entire experience meaningless)

Maybe that if they’re local, the taxpayers won’t object to providing them free food & shelter in the local jail, but they don’t want to do that for a stranger. (It might just encourage ‘tramps’ to come to the town.) Police generally encourage ‘tramps’ to ‘move along’, often even transporting them to the boundary limit of the jurisdiction. Thus moving them on to some other jurisdiction’s problem.

IANAL but if I recall, the Canadian Supreme Court overturned our vagrancy laws in the early 1970’s. Basically the law stated that the police could accost someone and ask that they give an account of themselves - where they worked, what was their job, whether they had income, where they lived, why they were out and about. (Or “oot and aboot”). From what I gathered in the news reports of the time, it gave police the power to arrest beggars and prostitutes just for hanging around on the streets. It also required people to identify themselves to police on request. As can be expected, the court eventually decided that street cleaning was not a justification for arresting people.

I cannot find a ruling overturning subparagraphs (1) or (3). Subparagraph (1) is very limited in scope, because a person without lawful means of support is necessarily supported by unlawful means. That means probable cause for arrest under subparagraph (1) would require probable cause for arrest under some other crime, for example, theft. Subparagraph (3) only applies to prostitutes or people soliciting to commit crimes against sexual morality.

You will notice subparagraph (2) is missing, that is because it was ruled unconstitutional in State v. Starks, 51 Wis. 2d 256 (1971).

"The fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution protects persons from incursions by the state into certain areas of their life, and an overbroad statute is constitutionally defective if it extends state criminal authority beyond the proper reach of government into one of these protected private areas. Scott v. District Attorney, supra.

Sec. 947.02 (2), Stats., fails to define with precision the distinction between criminal and noncriminal conduct and thus may be used to “criminalize” conduct which is beyond the legitimate reach of the state’s police power. Lazarus v. Faircloth (S. D. C. Fla. 1969), 301 Fed. Supp. 266.

A literal reading of sec. 947.02 (2), Stats., indicates that it affects persons whom the legislature did not intend to reach. It is difficult to conceive of a situation in which a person is not “in or . . . near any structure, vehicle or private grounds.” The requirement of making an account to some unspecified person is obviously offensive. Sightseers, window-shoppers and persons merely taking a walk come within the clear wording of the statute, yet no one could reasonably argue that the state has the constitutional authority to compel such a result. Sec. 947.02 (2), in attempting to proscribe certain conduct proscribes conduct which is beyond the reach of the criminal law under the United States Constitution."

Subparagraph (4) was apparently ruled unconstitutional by a lower court in 2012, but that ruling is not binding across the state. Further I am unable to locate any record of the case except for one unofficial source: ruling here:


That’s just how law is. Annotated statutes are hard to make and, if it does exist, it is probably really expensive or possibly even secret (internal to the law firm that made it). The laws and court cases themselves are part of the public record, and so must be made accessible to the public.


Well, there may be any number of law firms compiling annotated statutes and court cases, which they may keep proprietary. But law libraries certainly have some of these (which I think they pay beaucoup bucks for), and anyone with access to such a library can find them. Major universities would have these, and they may even be open to the public. These laws, and transcripts of court cases, together with their extensive annotations and cross-references, are EXTENSIVE INDEED!

(In these modern times, this stuff is all in on-line databases, which law libraries also have access to. These are even more proprietary: Even if the dead-tree books might be open to the public, the on-line databases are more often available only to students at that university, and maybe even only specifically to law students. The law schools pay big bucks for access to those databases too, and that access comes with restrictive terms-of-service over who can view them.)

These legal-beagle people take the law very seriously, and this stuff is more extensively researched, discussed, annotated, and cross-referenced than any other subject matter I can think of, with the possible exception of the Bible. Has anyone here ever looked at the Anchor Bible? I think the law is even more extensively covered than that.