Loitering: Definition & Laws

Instructor: Jennifer Schneider

Jennifer teaches critical thinking, legal writing and research, business law and justice studies courses. She has a law degree.

In this lesson we study loitering, a type of behavior often prohibited by state and local authorities. We will explore illustrative laws and also complete a quiz to test our understanding.

Hanging Out, Loitering or Both?

Temperatures had been in the high 90's all week. School was finally out and a group of close friends was looking forward to getting a head start on summer. They decided to head to their favorite pizza shop and order some cold drinks.

After paying for their drinks, they stepped outside; the heavy, humid air no longer bothered them. The friends were laughing, joking around and enjoying their cold refreshments. Long after their drinks were finished, the friends enjoyed each others' company and found the stoop outside the pizza shop a perfect place to enjoy their night. They had no real reason or purpose for staying… but they had nowhere to be either. They were having a nice time and were surprised that others were not as pleased with their choices for the evening.

A few hours into their joyful time, a police officer approached and issued each of them a warning about loitering. 'Loitering, us?', they asked. 'But, we're just hanging out…. having fun.'

Loitering - Defined

Loitering refers to an individual or group of individuals who are present for an extended period of time in a public place with no clear or pressing reason to be there. An individual who decides to hang out on a street corner to people watch and pass the time could, in some jurisdictions, be accused of loitering. The group of friends who decides to hang out near the entry of a local pizza shop on a Friday night could be accused of loitering in some jurisdictions.


Loitering laws are intended to protect against a wide range of behaviors that are generally perceived as undesirable. Loitering charges can originate in many contexts.

Examples of behaviors loitering laws are meant to protect against include:

  1. public begging
  2. solicitation of prostitution
  3. gang violence
  4. drug dealing
  5. gambling
  6. blocking access to commercial establishments
  7. selling merchandise with no legal authorization to do so
  8. public nuisances (acts which threaten the healthy, safety or morals of a community)

A Defaced No Loitering Sign
Defaced No Loitering Sign

State and Local Law and Potential Penalties

Laws prohibiting loitering are often established by local authorities in the form of city or township ordinances, rather than state law. Laws vary, but fines and possible jail time are common penalties. Some local loitering laws impose community service requirements on violators.

A loitering ordinance passed by the city of Detroit prohibits individuals (and groups of individuals) from standing or idling (our group of friends simply hanging out could suffice) in a public place if doing so obstructs the passage of pedestrians or vehicles. If our group of friends was big enough to make it hard for pedestrians to walk by them on the sidewalk, they could be found guilty of violating this law. Anyone who violates this prohibition can be penalized with a fine of up to $100.

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