Vagrancy Laws

Vagrancy is the principal crime in which the offense consists of being an aesthetically undesirable person rather than in having done or failed to do certain acts. The crime of vagrancy originated in fourteenthcentury England with the passage of the first statute of laborers that restricted the movement of those persons who owned no land and were unemployed. The common law crime of vagrancy consisted of being without visible means of support, being without employment, or being able to work but refusing to do so. The concept of vagrancy followed colonists to America, and nearly all states enacted statutes embodying differentiations of the common law offense.

The definition of ‘‘vagrancy’’ differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and typically encompasses a myriad of misdemeanor offenses. Existing vagrancy statutes may be divided into essentially five categories: (1) statutes that make one a vagrant on the basis of his status or condition, such as poverty and absence of employment; (2) statutes that make one a vagrant for engaging in an activity considered innocuous, such as loitering; (3) statutes that make one a vagrant on the basis of reputation; (4) statutes that make one a vagrant for a condition generally obnoxious to the community standards, such as drunkenness and drug use; and (5) statutes that make one a vagrant for acts of conduct recognized in many jurisdictions as separate crimes, such as fortune telling and subversive activities.

Beginning in the 1960s vagrancy laws came under constitutional attack and were struck down by courts as being unconstitutionally vague, overbroad, violating due process, exceeding the police power, and violating the equal protection clause. In light of the increasing judicial disapproval of vagrancy statutes, some states repealed such statutes in favor of laws that prohibit specific conduct. Although vagrancy laws still exist in different forms, vagrancy laws must balance both the interest of the state and the rights of the individual.

PATRICK H. HAGGERTY

References and Further Reading

  • Dubin, Gary V. and Richard H. Robinson, Note, The Vagrancy Concept Reconsidered: Problems and Abuses of Status Criminality, New York University Law Review 37 (1962): 102–136.
  • Lacey, Forrest W., Vagrancy and Other Crimes of Personal Condition, Harvard Law Review 66 (1953): 1203–1226.
  • Ribton-Turner, C. J. A History of Vagrants and Beggars and Begging. London, England: Chapman and Hall, 1887.

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