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Vagrancy The condition of an individual who is idle, has no visible means of support, and travels from place to place without working.

At Common Law the term vagrant referred to a person who was idle, refused to work although capable of doing so, and lived on the charity of others. Until the 1970s state vagrancy statutes were used by police to charge persons who were suspected of criminal activity, but whose actions had not gone far enough to constitute a criminal attempt. Court decisions, however, have struck down vagrancy laws as unconstitutionally vague. In addition, the term vagrant has been replaced by Homeless Person as a way of describing a person who is without means or a permanent home.

Traditionally, communities tended to regard vagrants with suspicion and view them either as beggars or as persons likely to commit crimes. In England vagrants were whipped, branded, conscripted into military service, or exiled to penal colonies. In colonial America vagrancy statutes were common. A person who wandered into a town and did not find work was told to leave the community or face criminal prosecution.

After the U.S. Civil War, the defeated Southern states enacted Black Codes, sets of laws that sought to maintain white control over the newly freed African American slaves. The concern that African Americans would leave their communities and deplete the labor supply led to the inclusion of vagrancy laws in these codes. Unemployed African Americans who had no permanent residence could be arrested and fined. Typically, the person could not pay the fine and was therefore either sent for a term of labor with the county or hired out to a private employer.

The abuse of vagrancy laws by the police throughout the United States was common. Such laws were vague and undefined, allowing police to arrest persons merely on the suspicion they were about to do something illegal. In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court addressed this problem in Papachristou v. Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 92 S. Ct. 839, 31 L. Ed. 2d 110. The Court ruled that a Florida vagrancy statute was unconstitutional because it was too vague to be understood. The Court emphasized that members of the public cannot avoid engaging in criminal conduct, if prior to engaging in it, they cannot determine that the conduct is forbidden by law. The Court also concluded that the vagrancy law's vagueness lent itself to Arbitrary enforcement: police, prosecutors, and juries could enforce the law more stringently against one person than against another, even though the two individuals' conduct was similar.

After Papachristou the validity of vagrancy statutes was put in doubt. Prosecutions for vagrancy must now be tied to observable acts, such as public begging. Prosecutions are rare, however, because local governments do not want to spend their financial resources incarcerating persons for such offenses.

vagrancy n. moving about without a means to support oneself, without a permanent home, and relying on begging. Until recently it was a considered a minor crime (misdemeanor) in many states. Constitutionally it is evident that being poor is not a crime. The same is true of "loitering."

Void for Vagueness Doctrine A doctrine derived from the due process clauses of the fifth and fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution that requires criminal laws to be drafted in language that is clear enough for the average person to comprehend.

If a person of ordinary intelligence cannot determine what persons are regulated, what conduct is prohibited, or what punishment may be imposed under a particular law, then the law will be deemed unconstitutionally vague. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that no one may be required at peril of life, liberty, or property to speculate as to the meaning of a penal law. Everyone is entitled to know what the government commands or forbids.

The void for vagueness doctrine advances four underlying policies. First, the doctrine encourages the government to clearly distinguish conduct that is lawful from that which is unlawful. Under the Due Process Clauses, individuals must be given adequate notice of their legal obligations so they can govern their behavior accordingly. When individuals are left uncertain by the wording of an imprecise statute, the law becomes a standardless trap for the unwary.

For example, Vagrancy is a crime that is frequently regulated by lawmakers despite difficulties that have been encountered in defining it. Vagrancy laws are often drafted in such a way as to encompass ordinarily innocent activity. In one case the Supreme Court struck down an ordinance that prohibited "loafing," "strolling," or "wandering around from place to place" because such activity comprises an innocuous part of nearly everyone's life (Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 92 S. Ct. 839, 31 L. Ed. 2d 110 [1972]). The Court concluded that the ordinance did not provide society with adequate warning as to what type of conduct might be subject to prosecution.

Second, the void for vagueness doctrine curbs the Arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of criminal statutes. Penal laws must be understood not only by those persons who are required to obey them but by those persons who are charged with the duty of enforcing them. Statutes that do not carefully outline detailed procedures by which police officers may perform an investigation, conduct a search, or make an arrest confer wide discretion upon each officer to act as he or she sees fit. Precisely worded statutes are intended to confine an officer's activities to the letter of the law.

Third, the void for vagueness doctrine discourages judges from attempting to apply sloppily worded laws. Like the rest of society, judges often labor without success when interpreting poorly worded legislation. In particular cases, courts may attempt to narrowly construe a vague statute so that it applies only to a finite set of circumstances. For example, some courts will permit prosecution under a vague law if the government can demonstrate that the defendant acted with a Specific Intent to commit an offense, which means that the defendant must have acted wilfully, knowingly, or deliberately. By reading a specific intent requirement into a vaguely worded law, courts attempt to insulate innocent behavior from criminal sanction.

However, such judicial constructions are not always possible. Ultimately, a confusing law that cannot be cured by a narrow judicial interpretation will not be submitted to a jury for consideration but will be struck down as an unconstitutional violation of the Due Process Clauses.

A fourth reason for the void for vagueness doctrine is to avoid encroachment on First Amendment freedoms, such as Freedom of Speech and religion. Because vague laws cause uncertainty in the minds of average citizens, some citizens will inevitably decline to take risky behavior that might land them in jail. When the vague provisions of a state or federal statute deter citizens from engaging in certain political or religious discourse, courts will apply heightened scrutiny to ensure that protected expression is not suppressed. For example, a law that prohibits "sacrilegious" speech would simultaneously chill the freedoms of expression and religion in violation of the void for vagueness doctrine (Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 72 S. Ct. 777, 96 L. Ed. 1098 [1952]).

Although courts scrutinize a vague law that touches on a fundamental freedom, in all other cases the void for vagueness doctrine does not typically require mathematical precision on the part of legislators. Laws that regulate the economy are scrutinized less closely than laws that regulate individual behavior, and laws that impose civil or administrative penalties may be drafted with less clarity than laws imposing criminal sanctions.

Homeless Person An individual who lacks housing, including one whose primary residence during the night is a supervised public or private facility that provides temporary living accommodations; an individual who is a resident in transitional housing; or an individual who has as a primary residence a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.

The number of homeless persons in the United States is estimated to be between 250,000 and three million. Unemployment, cutbacks in social service programs, a lack of affordable housing, and the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill patients are some of the circumstances that have led to people living in shelters or on the streets. There is no fair stereotype of homeless persons: they include the young and old, individuals and entire families, and all races and ethnicities. According to 2000 statistics published by the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2002, best estimates indicate that approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population (3.5 million persons) experience homelessness each year—more than one third of them children. The rights of these persons have become important societal and legal issues.Shelter

Although federal law provides for emergency shelter for homeless families in most states, there is no federal or constitutional right to shelter. In 1987, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (42 U.S.C.A. § 11301) was passed to provide public resources and programs to assist the homeless population. Under the act, the federal government is required to provide underutilized public buildings for use by people who are homeless. In National Law Center v. United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 964 F.2d 1210 (D.C. Cir. 1992), a homeless rights group sought to enforce compliance with the McKinney Act. The court agreed with the plaintiffs and held that the government must comply with the McKinney Act by allowing homeless people access to underused federal property.

Because the federal courts have refused to recognize a federal constitutional right to shelter, several states have enacted their own laws to recognize such a right. Many of these statutes require that cities provide shelter for people who are homeless, but they do not outline enforcement procedures. Although statutes require state agencies to provide shelter, the agencies often cannot keep up with the demand, citing expense and overcrowding. In Atchison v. District of Columbia, 585 A.2d 150 (D.C. App. 1991), a court imposed daily fines on a shelter for failure to provide services. The level of fines combined with the cost of litigation stimulated the adoption of an emergency act that allowed the agency to provide a shelter program based on the availability of funds.Economic Assistance

By the late 1990s, public assistance was a prominent political issue. As the government began cutting Welfare programs, people who were homeless found it increasingly difficult to rise above the poverty level. In addition, substantial cuts to welfare programs created the possibility that more people would be forced into homelessness.Existing public assistance programs often fail to help those who are homeless. Some programs require that recipients have temporary or permanent addresses, effectively eliminating otherwise eligible recipients. In some instances, money that could be spent providing permanent, affordable housing for people who are homeless is used to provide temporary housing in "welfare hotels." A welfare hotel is inexpensive housing that is used for temporary shelter by low-income or homeless persons. In 1995, legislation was introduced to control welfare spending and to reduce welfare dependence. (H.R. 1157, 104th Cong., 1st Sess.). The features of this legislation included discontinuing welfare benefits to certain groups and creating state demonstration projects to reduce the number of homeless families in welfare hotels.Education

One alarming aspect of the growth of the homeless population is the increasing numbers of families and children who have nowhere to live. Children are more strongly affected by homelessness than are adults because they are less able to overcome a lack of food, shelter, health care, and education. Many children in homeless families lack the transportation, documentation, and even clothing needed to attend public schools.

State residency guidelines typically require children to attend school within the district in which their parent or guardian lives. Homeless children cannot meet these residency requirements. Because education is often critical to overcoming poverty and homelessness, the McKinney Act specifically addresses the issue of education for children who are homeless. The act ensures that these children have every opportunity for a public school education. It requires states to revise their residency requirements in order to give such children a free education.

Another barrier to the education rights of children without a home is the inability to track education and medical records. Students can be refused enrollment if they have no documentation of previous schooling. The McKinney Act requires local education agencies to maintain records that can be readily available when a student moves to a new school district. Under the act, children must also have equal access to special-education programs in the public school system.Voting

The right to vote is expressly stated in the U.S. Constitution. Because most states require that a citizen have a permanent residence in order to vote, the right to vote is often denied to people who are homeless. The right to vote provides a way for a person who is homeless to be heard—by electing public officials who are sympathetic to the concerns of people who are without a home—and thus is an important right to protect.

New Jersey was one of the first states to allow people who are homeless the right to vote. The only requirement is that they meet the age and residency requirement of the state's constitution. They can satisfy the residency requirement by specifying a place they regard as home and providing the name of at least one contact who can verify their residence in that place.

By 1994, 13 states had legislation protecting the voting rights of people who are homeless. In Collier v. Menzel, 176 Cal. App. 3d 24, 221 Cal. Rptr. 110 (1985), three persons who were homeless listed a local park as their address on a voter-registration card. The court held that they had satisfied the residency requirement because they had indicated a fixed habitation in which they intended to remain for an extended period. In addition, even though a city ordinance prohibited camping and sleeping overnight in the park, the court held that denying the voter registration would violate Equal Protection.Antihomeless Legislation

With an increased homeless population comes increased concern on the part of members of the general public when they find members of that population loitering on the streets. Vagrancy ordinances were passed to keep people who are homeless from staying too long in any one location. Many of these statutes have been labeled antihomeless legislation because they particularly target behavior over which some homeless people have no control.

In Papachristou v. Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 92 S. Ct. 839, 31 L. Ed. 2d 110 (1972), eight homeless people challenged their conviction for violating a vagrancy ordinance. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the ordinance was vague and that it criminalized otherwise innocent conduct. In this and similar cases, the Court has stated that these "crimes" do not cause any harm to others that outweighs the violation of the rights of the individuals arrested.

Protections against an illegal Search and Seizure also apply to people who are homeless and to their belongings, even though their belongings might not be located in a traditional home setting. In State v. Mooney, 218 Conn. 85, 588 A.2d 145 (1991), police officers searched belongings of a homeless man that were found under a bridge embankment. As a result of the search, the man was arrested and charged with Robbery and felony murder. The man appealed his conviction, claiming that it had been an illegal search because the police had lacked a warrant to search his home, a cardboard box. The court agreed with the man that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of his belongings. It disagreed, however, with his contention that he had an expectation of privacy in the bridge abutment area.

When people without a home are arrested and jailed, their property is often destroyed or stolen while they are incarcerated. Laws that target people who are homeless are thus viewed as unreasonable searches and seizures of property. In Pottinger v. City of Miami, 810 F. Supp. 1551 (S.D. Fla. 1992), a Class Action suit was brought on behalf of thousands of homeless people. The court agreed that certain city ordinances unfairly targeted those people and that resulting arrests and seizures of property were in violation of their constitutional rights.

Finally, there appeared to be an increasing trend for many urban areas to enact legislation prohibiting the homeless from begging or panhandling among the general public. As of 2003, 46 of the nation's 50 largest cities had passed laws that either prohibited or regulated begging—not without some planned challenges.

Common Law The ancient law of England based upon societal customs and recognized and enforced by the judgments and decrees of the courts. The general body of statutes and case law that governed England and the American colonies prior to the American Revolution.

The principles and rules of action, embodied in case law rather than legislative enactments, applicable to the government and protection of persons and property that derive their authority from the community customs and traditions that evolved over the centuries as interpreted by judicial tribunals.

A designation used to denote the opposite of statutory, equitable, or civil, for example, a common-law action.

The common-law system prevails in England, the United States, and other countries colonized by England. It is distinct from the civil-law system, which predominates in Europe and in areas colonized by France and Spain. The common-law system is used in all the states of the United States except Louisiana, where French Civil Law combined with English Criminal Law to form a hybrid system. The common-law system is also used in Canada, except in the Province of Quebec, where the French civil-law system prevails.

Anglo-American common law traces its roots to the medieval idea that the law as handed down from the king's courts represented the common custom of the people. It evolved chiefly from three English Crown courts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: the Exchequer, the King's Bench, and the Common Pleas. These courts eventually assumed jurisdiction over disputes previously decided by local or manorial courts, such as baronial, admiral's (maritime), guild, and forest courts, whose jurisdiction was limited to specific geographic or subject matter areas. Equity courts, which were instituted to provide relief to litigants in cases where common-law relief was unavailable, also merged with common-law courts. This consolidation of jurisdiction over most legal disputes into several courts was the framework for the modern Anglo-American judicial system.Early common-law procedure was governed by a complex system of Pleading, under which only the offenses specified in authorized writs could be litigated. Complainants were required to satisfy all the specifications of a writ before they were allowed access to a common-law court. This system was replaced in England and in the United States during the mid-1800s. A streamlined, simplified form of pleading, known as Code Pleading or notice pleading, was instituted. Code pleading requires only a plain, factual statement of the dispute by the parties and leaves the determination of issues to the court.

Common-law courts base their decisions on prior judicial pronouncements rather than on legislative enactments. Where a statute governs the dispute, judicial interpretation of that statute determines how the law applies. Common-law judges rely on their predecessors' decisions of actual controversies, rather than on abstract codes or texts, to guide them in applying the law. Common-law judges find the grounds for their decisions in law reports, which contain decisions of past controversies. Under the doctrine of Stare Decisis, common-law judges are obliged to adhere to previously decided cases, or precedents, where the facts are substantially the same. A court's decision is binding authority for similar cases decided by the same court or by lower courts within the same jurisdiction. The decision is not binding on courts of higher rank within that jurisdiction or in other jurisdictions, but it may be considered as persuasive authority.

Because common-law decisions deal with everyday situations as they occur, social changes, inventions, and discoveries make it necessary for judges sometimes to look outside reported decisions for guidance in a case of first impression (previously undetermined legal issue). The common-law system allows judges to look to other jurisdictions or to draw upon past or present judicial experience for analogies to help in making a decision. This flexibility allows common law to deal with changes that lead to unanticipated controversies. At the same time, stare decisis provides certainty, uniformity, and predictability and makes for a stable legal environment.

Under a common-law system, disputes are settled through an adversarial exchange of arguments and evidence. Both parties present their cases before a neutral fact finder, either a judge or a jury. The judge or jury evaluates the evidence, applies the appropriate law to the facts, and renders a judgment in favor of one of the parties. Following the decision, either party may appeal the decision to a higher court. Appellate courts in a common-law system may review only findings of law, not determinations of fact.

Under common law, all citizens, including the highest-ranking officials of the government, are subject to the same set of laws, and the exercise of government power is limited by those laws. The judiciary may review legislation, but only to determine whether it conforms to constitutional requirements.



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