As statistics show, there is at least one homeless person in every five individuals living in California, two-thirds of which have no access to any type of shelter. As tragic and alarming as it may sound, however, the state legislature has not even done the bare minimum into solving this issue. In fact, some cities have crafted initiatives centered around the principles of vagrancy laws -- a collection of municipal codes that make homelessness a crime.
More specifically, vagrancy laws have made the following statuses illegal:
- Drug addict;
- Prostitute; or
If you are any of the following, you would have been an easy target under vagrancy ordinances. You could see why vagrancy laws are very problematic -- they enable harassment and discrimination against individuals who happen to belong in any of those categories. The worst part is that vagrancy laws are often used to justify violent actions against homeless people regardless of what they were doing or what they were not doing. Fortunately, that is now a thing of the past. Vagrancy laws have been omitted due to their unconstitutional and vague nature. We shall further discuss the negative qualities of vagrancy laws later.
While vagrancy laws are no longer considered valid, some of its principles still linger. For example, certain conducts are prohibited in California, such as:
- Sleeping outside or at a public place;
- Gambling; and
The criminalization of the aforementioned conduct is understandable, since enforcing these would be constitutional as opposed to enforcing vagrancy laws. The focus is now on the behavior of the person (which is a matter of choice), and not necessarily on their status in life (which is often not a matter of choice).
To truly understand the vagrancy laws, let us take a look at the examples below:
- A group of law enforcers was tasked to survey a neighborhood known for having the highest crime rate in the city. One of the officers saw a hooded man sleeping at the corner of a convenience store. The man was clearly homeless, but even if he was not doing anything illegal at the time, the officer still arrested him.
- Ever since childhood, this 52-year-old woman has been wandering the streets of California. She only relied on the generosity of the people around her to survive. She never had problems with anyone, in fact, she even made a lot of friends while living on the streets. One day, however, she was suddenly detained after a group of anonymous homeowners reported her simply because they did not like her presence in their neighborhood.
- A single dad has recently lost his job after his company did a mass layoff due to bankruptcy. He has five young children to sustain. Without any other choice, he resorted to panhandling and begging for food scraps or pocket change from passersby. A police mobile happened to pass by him and saw what he was doing. They immediately exited their vehicle, approached the man, and arrested him for illegal panhandling.
Why are Vagrancy Laws Unconstitutional?
Upon evaluating vagrancy laws, the state legislators cited the following reasons why vagrancy laws cannot be enforced:
- Vagrancy laws do not exactly pinpoint which acts constitute a crime. For instance, when do you consider a person homeless? Can an officer arrest or detain someone for simply being one? Since vagrancy laws cannot provide concrete answers to these questions, they cannot be enforced.
- Homelessness is something that is often beyond a person's control. Tragic circumstances, such as the loss of a family member, mental illness, sudden job termination, or addiction may cause someone to spiral down into poverty or homelessness. Therefore, it is cruel and unjust to punish individuals based solely on their status.
Vagrancy Laws Penalties
At the time when vagrancy laws were still accepted, a violation would lead to a misdemeanor charge. Today, the penalty remains the same, but it is no longer about the status of a person. Conducts such as prostitution, gambling, and public intoxication -- which are misdemeanors -- usually have the following penalties:
- Not more than one year in county jail; and/or
- A fine not exceeding $1,000.
Our Criminal Defense Attorneys Will Fight For You
Unfortunately, some cities in California continue to enact new anti-homeless ordinances. Actions such as sharing food with homeless people are now considered illegal in some places. We understand how absurd and alarming these laws are for people who are simply trying to go about their day and help others. Therefore, if you get charged for violating vagrancy laws in California, we highly recommend our skilled and experienced criminal defense lawyers to help you challenge your charge.
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