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 In addition, the term vagrant has been replaced by HOMELESS PERSON as a way of describing a person who is without means or a permanent home.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.