United States Vagrancy Laws
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
The crime of vagrancy has deep historical roots in American law and legal culture. Originating in 16th-century England, vagrancy laws came to the New World with the colonists and soon proliferated throughout the British colonies and, later, the United States. Vagrancy laws took myriad forms, generally making it a crime to be poor, idle, dissolute, immoral, drunk, lewd, or suspicious. Vagrancy laws often included prohibitions on loitering—wandering around without any apparent lawful purpose—though some jurisdictions criminalized loitering separately. Taken together, vaguely worded vagrancy, loitering, and suspicious persons laws targeted objectionable “out of place” people rather than any particular conduct. They served as a ubiquitous tool for maintaining hierarchy and order in American society. Their application changed alongside perceived threats to the social fabric, at different times and places targeting the unemployed, labor activists, radical orators, cultural and sexual nonconformists, racial and religious minorities, civil rights protesters, and the poor. By the mid-20th century, vagrancy laws served as the basis for hundreds of thousands of arrests every year. But over the course of just two decades, the crime of vagrancy, virtually unquestioned for four hundred years, unraveled. Profound social upheaval in the 1960s produced a concerted effort against the vagrancy regime, and in 1972, the US Supreme Court invalidated the laws. Local authorities have spent the years since looking for alternatives to the many functions vagrancy laws once served.