Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Vagrancy Definition:

A criminal offence of being intentionally unemployed and thereby neglecting to maintain himself or his family.

Related Terms: Loitering, Vagrant

This offence is now rarely prosecuted in most free and democratic societies.

It emanated from a 1824 English law commonly known as the Vagrancy Act.

That statute sets out:

"... every person being able wholly or in part to maintain himself or herself, or his or her family, by work or by other means, and willfully refusing or neglecting so to do, by which refusal or neglect he or she, or any of his or her family whom he or she may be legally bound to maintain, shall have become chargeable to any ... township or place; ... every pedlar (sic) wandering abroad and trading without being duly licensed; ... every common prostitute wandering in the public streets or public highways, or in any place of public resort, and behaving in a riotous or indecent manner; and every person wandering abroad for placing himself or herself in any public place, street, highway, court or passage, debate or gather alms, or causing or procuring or encouraging any child or children so to do, shall be deemed and final and disorderly person within the true intent and meaning of this act; and it shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit such offender ... to the house of correction, there are to kept to hard labour for any time not exceeding one calendar month.

"And be it further enacted that ... every person pretending or protesting to tell fortunes ...; every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon, not having any visible means of subsistence, and not getting a good account of himself or herself; every person willfully exposing to view in any street, road, highway or public place, any obscene print, picture or other indecent exhibition; every person willfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely exposing his person in any street, road or public highway, or in the view thereof, or in any place of public resort, with intent to insult any female; every person wandering abroad and endeavoring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms; every person running away and leaving his wife, shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond ... and it shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit such offender to the House of correction there to be kept to hard labor for any time not exceeding three calendar months."

VagrancySince the 1824 statute, the Vagrancy Act has been frequently amended.

In a 1936 English case (Ledwith v Roberts), Justice Scott wrote:

"These (vagrancy) laws were framed exclusively in relation to (a) particular class of the community, and had three purposes.

"The class consisted of the hordes of unemployed persons, many of them addicted to crime, then wandering over the face of the country; and the purposes were: settlement of the able bodied in their own parish and provision of work for them there; relief of the aged and infirm, i.e., those who could not work; (and) punishment of those of the able-bodied who would not work.

"The early Vagrancy Acts came into being under peculiar conditions utterly different to those of the present time. From the time of the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century, till the middle of the 17th century, and indeed, although in diminishing degrees, right down to the reform of the poor law in the first half of the 19th century the roads of England were crowded with masterless men and their families who had lost their former employment through a variety of causes, had no means of livelihood and had taken to a vagrant life.

"The main causes were the gradual decay of the feudal system under which the labouring classes had been anchored to the soil, the economic slackening of the legal compulsion to work for fixed wages; the breakup of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII, and the consequent disappearance of the religious orders which had previously administered a kind of public assistance in the form of lodging, food and alms; and lastly the economic changes brought about by the Enclosure Acts.

"Some of these people were honest labourers who had fallen upon evil days, others were the 'wild rogues' so common in Elizabethan times and literature who had been born to a life of idleness and had no intention of following any other. It was they and their confederates who formed themselves into the notorious 'brotherhoods of beggars' which flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were a definite and serious menace to the community, and it was chiefly against them and their kind that the harsher provisions of the vagrancy laws of the period were directed."

In Canada, the Criminal Code, s. 179 now limits the crime of vagrancy to encompass only such conduct were a person "supports himself in whole or in part by gaming or crime and has no lawful profession or calling by which to maintain himself" or in regards to a convicted sexual offender "found loitering in or near a school ground, playground, public park or bathing area".

The prohibition against vagrancy has not survived constitutional challenge in the United States Supreme Court. In Chicago v Morale the court struck a Chicago "anti-vagrancy" bylaw for vagueness, as it had done in 1972 in Papachristou v. Jacksonville.

Florida's vagrancy legislation, Chapter 856 of the 2008 Florida statutes, is another example of the evolution of the crime of vagrancy which responds to the Supreme Court's issues and provides for a form of notice to the suspect:

"It is unlawful for any person to loiter or prowl in a place, at a time or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals, under circumstances that warrant a justifiable and reasonable alarm or immediate concern for the safety of persons or property in the vicinity.

"Among the circumstances which may be considered in determining whether such alarm or immediate concern is warranted is the fact that the person takes flight upon appearance of a law enforcement officer, refuses to identify himself or herself, or manifestly endeavors to conceal himself or herself or any object. Unless flight by the person or other circumstance makes it impracticable, a law enforcement officer shall, prior to any arrest for an offense under this section, afford the person an opportunity to dispel any alarm or immediate concern which would otherwise be warranted by requesting the person to identify himself or herself and explain his or her presence and conduct. No person shall be convicted of an offense under this section if the law enforcement officer did not comply with this procedure or if it appears at trial that the explanation given by the person is true and, if believed by the officer at the time, would have dispelled the alarm or immediate concern."


  • An Act for the Punishment of Idle and Disorderly Persons, and Rogues and Vagabonds, in that part of Great Britain called England 5 George II 4, Chapter 83 (1824)
  • Chicago v Morales 527 US 41 (1999), published at www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/97-1121.ZD1.html
  • Criminal Code of Canada, revised statutes of Canada, 1985, Chapter C-46, published at www.canlii.org/ca/sta/c-46/
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Loitering and Legal Definition of Vagrant
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Punch's Punch
  • Florida Statutes, 2008, Chapter 856
  • Ledwith v Roberts [1936] 3 All ER 570
  • Papachristou v. Jacksonville 405 U.S. 156, (1972)

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