What Does No Loitering Mean?

Last Updated on May 11, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

If you grew up in the US, then you have probably heard of the term “no loitering”. This phrase is used frequently, it is often displayed on signs, and it is also used a lot in pop culture. Famously, the phrase is used in Little Shop of Horrors, yet a lot of people do not know what it is.

So what exactly does “no loitering” mean?

Loitering is one of those terms that is difficult to explain. But, it is generally accepted that the phrase “no loitering” means no hanging around in one location with no purpose. Usually the term will be used in phrases where you are not welcome. Such as outside convenience stores, or in front of a person’s house. 

But is this the only meaning of this term? And what happens if you are caught loitering? You can find out this, and lots more, by reading this guide. 

What Is Loitering?

As we have said, “loitering” is a term that is used to describe hanging around somewhere that you are not supposed to for too long. According to Merriam-Webster to loiter is “to remain in an area for no obvious reason”.

So, basically, it refers to standing around in an area where you are not supposed to for such a lengthy period that you interfere, become a nuisance, or become a problem. 

Loitering only applies to public spaces, and it is often listed in line with the terms “soliciting” and “panhandling”. A lot of people have challenged the legality of penalizing loitering over the years, simply because it can be a difficult thing to define, and it is even more difficult to enforce.

There is a fine line between waiting for somebody that you are supposed to be meeting, and loitering, and that is why so many people have an issue with enforcing it. 

Why Is Loitering Not Allowed?

But, if you are not familiar with the phrase loitering, then what you might have an issue with is why this is a thing in the first place. After all this is a vague term at best, and it is incredibly difficult to enforce, so why does it exist?

Well, penalties against loitering have existed for many years. In the United Kingdom, the Vagrancy Act of 1824 made loitering a crime, preventing suspicious people and potential thieves from lingering in places where they were not wanted.

Soon after, these laws were brought into play in the US too, and since then they have simply stuck around. 

There are some cases where the criminality of loitering makes sense. For example, in many States it is illegal for registered sex offenders to loiter anywhere near locations where there could be children.

So, if a known sex offender is found hanging around near a park or school, they will be penalized for it. But, this law hasn’t only been used to combat sex offenders, it has also been used to try to reduce gang related crimes in some of the rougher areas of America too. 

But, even in areas where there are not ongoing issues with sex offenders and gangs, you will still find signs that say “no loitering”. After all, this is a phrase that has existed in American society for a long time, and there are no signs that it is going anywhere.

Even if this term has become outdated in a lot of cases. 

What does No Loitering Mean

What Happens If You Loiter?

What happens to you if you loiter really does depend on a number of factors. In a lot of States, loitering is no longer included in State law, so it is rare for the consequences of loitering to be the same for an entire State. That is excluding loitering in relation to sex offenses or organized crime. 

But, just because loitering often isn’t a State crime anymore doesn’t mean that it isn’t a crime. While it isn’t a State crime, in most areas loitering is an ordinance of cities and towns.

This means that it is up to individual towns and cities to decide the penalties for the crime of loitering. This is why it is so difficult to define what happens if you loiter. 

Traditionally, the penalties incurred for loitering were pretty serious. Loitering was originally brought in as a law to combat the solicitation of prostitution, begging, drug dealing, and public drunkenness, so the penalties were pretty big.

For example, loitering as a crime did incur jail time in some States. But, now the penalties are much lighter. 

A lot of the time, loitering doesn’t come with a penalty. That is because a lot of police officers will take it upon themselves to tell the difference between somebody simply hanging around, and someone who is loitering with the intention of causing harm.

Those who simply seem to be hanging around will usually just be told to move on, and those who have been charged with loitering will usually only receive a small fine. At most, they will receive a 24-hour stay in police custody. 

What Does No Loitering Mean?

So, to loiter “is to remain in an area for no reason”, and knowing this makes it pretty easy to figure out what no loitering means. By adding the word “no”, this term is transformed from something that you can do to something that you can’t do.

So the term “no loitering” simply means that you shouldn’t remain in an area for no reason. 

Of course, loitering is a very vague term, so it isn’t as simple as it sounds. But, generally speaking, if you see a “no loitering” sign, you shouldn’t hang around that sign for too long. If you do, then it could be argued that you are loitering, and as we have said, this can come with penalties in many areas. 

However, it is worth noting that loitering laws are not restricted to areas that have signs that specify “no loitering”. If a city or town has brought in an ordinance surrounding loitering, then this will apply to the entire town/city, not just areas which display a sign.

So, if you plan on hanging around your neighborhood, it is best to check the loitering ordinance first. Otherwise, spending time with your friends could quickly become expensive. 

What Are Examples Of Loitering?

Even with everything that we have told you about loitering, this crime can still be rather confusing. This is simply because there is a fine line between simply standing around waiting for someone, or watching the world go by, and being accused of loitering.

So, what are some examples of this crime?

Well, the definition of loitering will depend on the State that you live in. For example, in Alabama you are guilty of loitering if you remain in a public place for any of the following reasons:

  • Gambling. 
  • Being masked or congregating with a group of masked people.
  • Engaging or soliciting another person to engage in deviant sexual intercourse or prostitution. 
  • Begging. 

Whereas, in Massachusetts, the statutes are a little different. In Massachusetts, you will be charged for loitering if you enter a public transportation facility without permission or after having been told not to enter.

So, the difference between the statutes in these States are rather different from one another. In fact, loitering in Massachusetts is pretty close to the crime of trespassing in other States. 

But, the struggle with the crime of loitering is that it is so vague that it is ultimately up to individual law enforcement officers to decide what is loitering and what isn’t.

That is why something as simple as waiting outside a shop with your dog while your partner purchases things could be seen as loitering. It all depends on the person that charges you. 

Is Loitering Illegal In The US?

Yes, loitering is illegal in most States. But, as we said earlier, loitering usually isn’t a State law. While most States will have statutes for loitering, it is ultimately up to individual towns and cities to set up an ordinance for this crime.

That is why in a lot of places, it is incredibly rare for a person to be charged with loitering. Ultimately, it is up to individual officers whether they will charge an individual with loitering, or not. Most of the time, police officers will not bother. 

However, there are some areas where many people are getting charged with loitering. In particular, this tends to occur in areas with high drug or organized crime rates. Where officers cannot charge individuals with other crimes, they might choose to charge them with loitering.

So, yes, loitering is illegal in the US, but in a lot of places this crime is not enforced. 


Can You Loiter Where You Live?

No, you cannot loiter where you live. If you own your house, then that building is your property. It is private property, not public property, so loitering is not a crime. This means that you can hang around your house aimlessly for as long as you wish.

But, if you live in an apartment block, and you stand around in the communal areas of the building, then you could be prosecuted for loitering.

Is Loitering The Same As Trespassing?

In most areas, loitering is not the same as trespassing. Although there are some crossovers in the laws in States like Massachusetts, trespassing is usually seen as a crime where you enter a place that is prohibited.

So, if you trespass, you are entering an area where you do not have permission or the license to go. Whereas, in most States, you will be penalized for loitering if you remain in an area of a public place for too long without any reason for doing so. 

Is Waiting For Someone Loitering?

Technically speaking, no, waiting for someone is not loitering. Loitering is a crime where you wait around in a public space without a reason. Whereas, if you are waiting for somebody, you have a reason to be standing in that public place.

However, ultimately it is up to individual crime enforcement officers to decide what is loitering and what is not. 


In short, no loitering means that you shouldn’t hang around in a public place without purpose for any length of time. Usually, there will be signs displayed in areas where you shouldn’t loiter, so if you see these signs you shouldn’t hang around for too long.

Loitering is a controversial crime because it is incredibly difficult to enforce. But, we have told you everything that you need to know about loitering in the guide above.