The dangerous discretion of loitering laws
Laws should be specific and tied to criminal activity in order to legitimately punish an individual; vagueness leads to discretion and abuse. Disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and other such statutes are examples, along with loitering laws in various cities around Utah.
While many cities do not have laws on this issue, others have odd, arbitrary restrictions governing non-criminal behavior, leading to the potential for a (potentially fatal) law enforcement encounter originating from nothing more than simply "hanging out."
Consider the example of Taylorsville, where it is illegal to be "at a place or at a time under circumstances that warrant alarm" for another person's safety. The city also prohibits loitering on school grounds without official business, or loitering that prevents the free passage of pedestrians on a sidewalk for more than two minutes. The city even prohibits being at a "building, lot, street, sidewalk or any other public or private place, either by walking, sitting, standing, or by sitting in or upon a vehicle or conveyance, without apparent reason."
"Official business" and "apparent reason" are so vague and broad, that the city effectively makes it an illegal act to simply sit on a school playground bench, or stand on any property anywhere in city limits for no reason. Daydreaming? Pondering? Randomly walking on the side of the road to enjoy a sunny day? All of them are prohibited.
The city of Highland likewise criminalizes those whose presence "cause[s] or warrant[s] alarm for the safety of persons or property in the area or vicinity." But it's not that simple; the city micro-manages a high degree of activity, classifying a person as guilty of loitering if the person:
- Loiters in or about a school, by walking, sitting, standing, or by being in or upon a vehicle or conveyance, not having any relationship involving custody or responsibility for a student or any other specific legitimate reason for being there, and not having written permission from anyone authorized to grant the same, and upon inquiry of a law enforcement officer such person fails to give a reasonable credible account of his or her identity, conduct, or purposes; or
- Loiters in or about a building, house, lot, street, sidewalk or other public or private place, either by walking, sitting, standing, or by sitting in or upon a vehicle or conveyance, without apparent reason and under circumstances which justify suspicion that he or she may be engaged in or about to engage in a crime, and upon inquiry of a law enforcement official, such person fails to give a reasonably credible account of his or her identity, conduct, or purposes; or
- Remains, wanders idly, or prowls on or in any public area in a manner or at a time not usual for law-abiding people.
Other cities have similar provisions. Some simply target being on school property, in parks, or specifically target the activity of minors. Others tie loitering to trespassing activity, thus exempting otherwise law-abiding individuals from the criminal classification.
According to Utah law, individuals need not tell a law enforcement officer their identity or their business (or lack thereof) without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. As such, loitering laws generally constituted are legally suspect and should be reined in or altogether repealed.