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What is Vagrancy?

Updated on February 14, 2010

Vagrancy is the wandering or going about from place to place by an idle person without visible means of support, not working for a living although able to do so, and subsisting on charity. In feudal times, vagrancy statutes were used not only as an instrument for controlling wandering bands of robbers, but served to protect the rights of the lord in his fugitive serfs.

In the United States, some form of vagrancy has become a statutory offense in almost every state. Some states do not define the term and rely on the common law definition. Others define it but vary as to the scope of the definition.

Vagrancy differs from most crimes in that the person who commits it need not commit an act or fail to act. He merely needs to have the "status" or be the "type of person" designated by the statute. Thus, under many statutes a course of conduct, rather than a single act, is sufficient to give rise to a charge of vagrancy.

The crime may consist of some or all of the following elements: living in idleness without employment or visible means of support; being a wanton, dissolute or lascivious person; being a common prostitute, a common drunkard, or a common gambler; keeping a house of prostitution or a gambling house; failing to support one's family; and roaming, wandering, and loitering.

Police sometimes make arrests on charges of vagrancy in order to prevent an offense which is imminent or to detain a person for questioning on a more serious charge, even though an arrest for the more serious charge would otherwise be unlawful. Although law enforcement agencies often feel that vagrancy statutes are valuable tools in the apprehension of criminals, the crime of vagrancy has been criticized by numerous legal scholars who feel it is unfair to impose criminal sanctions on persons simply because they possess certain characteristics. Vagrancy statutes have also been criticized on the grounds that they are excessively restrictive of personal liberty or are unconstitutionally vague. It is significant that the Model Penal Code, proposed by the American Law Institute in 1962, does not make vagrancy a crime, although the Code includes the crime of loitering and prowling.

A number of states have held the right to trial by jury does not apply to vagrancy cases, since this right in vagrancy cases did not exist at the time the state constitutions were adopted.

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