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The legal issues that surround vagrancy are a preemptive attempt at discouraging other crimes.  With concern for civil liberties, laws regarding vagrancy fall within the umbrella of loitering violations, and become an offense for the same reasons that loitering is an offense.  Vagrancy itself refers to the condition of being displaced, being without means of financial support, and not having a home.  According to Federal law, arrest and incarceration for simply being homeless is not a valid legal action, but if in the process of being homeless an individual breaks trespassing or loitering statutes, then it becomes a violation.  Delaware uses municipal statutes to determine vagrancy offenses, and many of these guidelines vary by town.

The most common reasons for arrest that are associated with vagrancy include loitering offenses and unlawful camping.  Under the loitering offenses the following are considered violations:

  • The use of a public park or lot as housing
  • The use of a sidewalk or byway as housing
  • The obstruction of a thoroughfare that is specific to foot, bicycle, skateboard, or vehicle traffic
  • Leaving belongings unattended in a public area
  • Commandeering a bench or shelter that is meant for public use
  • Committing any of these acts for over an hour within any two hour period

Unlawful camping may apply to setting up a form of shelter in any of these above mentioned situations, but can also apply to areas that are specifically designated for camping activities.  In recreational areas that are meant to accommodate the act of camping, vagrancy becomes a consideration if:

  • The individual is using facilities without permission
  • The individual is camping without a license, such as in a state park
  • The individual is employing camp paraphernalia in an area that is not designated for camping

If infractions such as public intoxication, sexual indecency, or harassment are committed in conjunction with vagrancy, then the crimes are processed separately and sentencing is given according to each offense.  Vagrancy is also outlined differently by town, and municipal charters provide the guidelines for the extent of punishment as well as the allowable alternatives within city limits.

Vagrancy Definition

Vagrancy can become a misdemeanor charge when it is deemed a criminal nuisance.  This would be applicable in cases where ad hoc housing becomes a health and safety danger, such as in cases where there is improper sanitation and faulty structure.  If the habitation is an abandoned or vacant structure, then the offense is one of trespassing, which can be either a violation or a misdemeanor, depending upon the laws of the municipality.  Delaware recognizes squatter’s rights only after 20 years of uninterrupted habitation, at which point the squatter may apply for a deed to the property with the local government.  However, before this point, the occupancy is a crime.

Vagrancy can also become a misdemeanor crime if the ad hoc shelter is used for the purposes of illegal conduct.  This would include unlawful camps where drug use, vandalism, or theft occurs.  In these cases, both a fine for the vagrancy violation and jail time for the further crime would be a part of the sentence.

In some cases, vagrancy can be attached to a misdemeanor or felony charge of cruelty to animals.  This most often occurs when an indigent person keeps an animal as a companion.  However, cruelty to animals is not always a direct crime.  In Delaware, cruelty to animals can include having improper shelter for an animal, having improper or no veterinary care, and failure or inability to feed an animal.  Thus, while the intent of cruelty is not necessarily present, the act of cruelty is.

Since vagrancy is addressed on a town by town basis in Delaware, the alternatives that are offered in support if indigent peoples may also vary.  On a national level, it is considered cruel, inhumane, and a disruption of civil liberties to discriminate against a person based on income and housing situations.  Within any given municipality, the court system will partner with public works and private charity shelters to offer an alternative to the commission of vagrancy violations.  This may include soup kitchens, government run homeless shelters, public camping areas that allow for long-term shelter, and halfway houses.  The expectation of utilizing these services as well as community service is a common sentence in many municipalities, although some towns will still uphold a violations fine as well.

Punishment for Vagrancy

Law enforcement is frequently called upon to enact temporary jail time before a hearing can allow for these alternatives.  This may or may not be recorded as a criminal incarceration, and is often used only for holding so as to avoid further offenses.  State and town aid is generally allocated to vagrancy concerns, which can provide support, and court appointed social workers may oversee offenders after a hearing has taken place.

Certain towns in the state of Delaware, such as Frederica and Delmar, have enactments within their charters that include the support for employment and housing as the result of a person’s hearing for vagrancy.  This binds the courts to take responsibility for welfare after finding an individual guilty of the offense.  In this manner, a compromise between the commission of the violation and any supposition of prejudice is reached on a legal level.  Regardless, Federal laws for vagrant justice can supersede state mandates, which allows for an individual who feels that they were imprisoned, fined, or charged in a discriminatory fashion to appeal to their conviction and sentence.

Contact a Delaware Vagrancy Lawyer

For legal assistance with your pending vagrancy charges, turn to Delaware Defense Attorney Brian J. Chapman. You can reach his office by dialing 302-656-2528 or you can email his firm directly by clicking here.