A sign on a law office down the street from me in Palo Alto:

The warning seems silly in the neighborhood, where I’ve never seen anyone even stopping in front of the building. So why the warning? And what is its legal standing?

(Photo by Ned Deily.)

NOAD2 on the intransitive verb loiter:

stand or wait around idly or without apparent purpose: she saw Mary loitering near the cloakrooms.

travel indolently and with frequent pauses: they loitered along in the sunshine, stopping at the least excuse.

On connotations, from NOAD2’s thesaurus:

Someone who hangs around downtown after the stores are closed and appears to be deliberately wasting time is said to loiter, a verb that connotes improper or sinister motives (the police warned the boys not to loiter). To dawdle is to pass time in a leisurely way or to pursue something halfheartedly (dawdle in a stationery shop; dawdle over a sinkful of dishes). Someone who dallies dawdles in a particularly pleasurable and relaxed way, with connotations of amorous activity (he dallied with his girlfriend when he should have been working). Idle suggests that the person makes a habit of avoiding work or activity (idle away the hours of a hot summer day), while lag suggests falling behind or failing to maintain a desirable rate of progress (she lagged several yards behind her classmates as they walked to the museum).

The connotations of loiter have been written into law in many places. From Wikipedia:

Loitering is the act of remaining in a particular public place for a protracted time without an apparent purpose. Under certain circumstances, it is illegal in various jurisdictions.

… Loitering for the purpose of prostitution is illegal in all U.S. states.

In 1992, the city of Chicago adopted an anti-loitering law (Chicago Municipal Code 8-4-015 (1992)) aimed at restricting gang related activity, especially violent crime and drug trafficking. The law, which defined loitering as “remain (ing) in any one place with no apparent purpose,” gave police officers a right to disperse such persons and in case of disobedience, provided for a punishment by fine, imprisonment and/or community service. It was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court of the United States (Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41 (1999)) as unacceptably vague and not giving citizens clear guidelines on what the acceptable conduct was. In 2000, the city adopted a revised version of the ordinance, in an attempt to eliminate the unconstitutional elements. Loitering was then defined as “remaining in any one place under circumstances that would warrant a reasonable person to believe that the purpose or effect of that behavior is to enable a criminal street gang to establish control over identifiable areas, to intimidate others from entering those areas, or to conceal illegal activities.”

In Portland, Oregon, a wide range of measures have been enacted to tackle loitering and related issues.

Anti-loitering laws now seem to be used primarily against homeless people, notably in “sit-lie” ordinances, like this one in Palo Alto:

No person shall sit or lie down upon the public sidewalk, or upon a blanket, chair, stool, or any other object placed upon the public sidewalk adjacent to either side of University Avenue…during the hours of 11 a.m. and 11 p.m.

(University Avenue is the main street, and main commercial street, of downtown Palo Alto.)

City Council has several times considered expanding the domain of this ordinance to a larger area, a rough square centered on University Area (and including my block of Ramona Street). I don’t know the current status of the proposal.

In any case, the proposal isn’t for an all-purpose anti-loitering ordinance, but specifically for a sit-lie ban, and it’s not clear whether the law firm’s warning actually has any legal force, or is just a show of threat.

(An entertaining side issue is how any ordinance would apply to public parks, which are in effect designated loitering ideas.)

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