Penal Code 653.22 PC | Loitering With Intent to Commit Prostitution (repealed)
Penal Code 653.22 PC | Loitering With Intent to Commit Prostitution (repealed)
California’s Penal Code 653.22, also known as the loitering with intent statute, made it illegal to loiter in public areas with the intent to commit prostitution. This controversial law was aimed at reducing the public nuisance of prostitution-related activities. But critics argued it was unconstitutionally vague and open to discriminatory enforcement. In 2016, after years of debate, PC 653.22 was ultimately repealed based on concerns that it infringed on constitutional rights.
Background of Penal Code 653.22
PC 653.22 was enacted in California in the 1990s during a nationwide push to give law enforcement more tools to crack down on prostitution-related crimes. At the time, many communities were struggling with issues like streetwalking, solicitation of johns, and the presence of pimps and prostitution rings operating openly. The loitering law was intended to allow police to intervene and make arrests before acts of prostitution actually occurred.
The statute made it a misdemeanor to loiter in any public place with the intent to commit prostitution. Officers could arrest if they had probable cause to believe the person was lingering or wandering about for the purposes of prostitution. Merely loitering with bad intent was enough – no actual solicitation was required. Supporters argued this would give law enforcement power to stop prostitution before it started. But critics raised concerns about vagueness and overbroad enforcement.
Constitutional and Practical Challenges to PC 653.22
Soon after passage, Penal Code 653.22 came under legal attack. Defense attorneys and civil liberties groups argued it was unconstitutionally vague. The language made it a crime to loiter with “intent” to commit prostitution, but what constituted intent was unclear. The law also failed to define what exactly counted as “loitering.” Critics argued this vagueness could lead to arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement.
In addition to the vagueness challenge, opponents argued Penal Code 653.22 violated constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of association. By criminalizing loitering with mere bad intent, it infringed on basic liberties protected by the First Amendment. The American Civil Liberties Union was among the groups that spoke out against the law on these grounds.
There were also practical concerns that the loitering law would simply push prostitution activities to other areas, without solving the root causes. Law enforcement retained other statutes to go after acts of prostitution or solicitation itself. But criminalizing loitering was seen as an overreach.
Debates Over Discriminatory Enforcement
One of the biggest criticisms of PC 653.22 focused on the potential for discriminatory enforcement. Opponents argued the vague loitering law gave police too much discretionary power to target marginalized groups like people of color, transgender individuals, or the homeless. Even if not intended, the law could be applied unevenly in practice.
Racial profiling was a major concern. In the 1990s, data showed African Americans were arrested on prostitution-related charges at far higher rates than other groups in California cities. Critics argued vague loitering laws enabled selective and biased enforcement. There were similar concerns that transgender women would be profiled and targeted unfairly under the loitering statute.
Civil rights advocates pointed to statistics showing disproportionate arrests of marginalized communities as evidence the law was being applied discriminatorily. They argued vague statutes enabled unconscious or overt bias, even if officers were not intentionally profiling. There were calls for the loitering law to be narrowed or repealed to prevent discrimination.
The Repeal of Penal Code 653.22
After years of debate, California lawmakers ultimately repealed Penal Code 653.22 in 2016. Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1322 into law, which decriminalized loitering with intent to commit prostitution. Several factors led to the repeal:
- Ongoing concerns about vagueness leading to arbitrary or biased enforcement
- Criticisms that the law infringed on constitutional freedoms
- Lack of evidence it was an effective anti-prostitution tool
- Changing attitudes toward sex work and criminalization
- Increased public awareness about marginalized communities impacted
Supporters of SB 1322 argued the loitering offense was overly broad and failed to address the root causes of prostitution. They also said other statutes remained allowing police to crack down on acts of solicitation or prostitution itself. With the loitering law repealed, California joined other states reforming laws seen as discriminatory against certain groups.
Remaining California Prostitution Laws
While no longer criminalizing loitering with “intent,” California retains other laws to address prostitution-related crimes after the repeal of PC 653.22:
- PC 647(b) – prohibits soliciting or engaging in any act of prostitution, punishable as a misdemeanor
- PC 266 – bans pimping and pandering, including soliciting customers for prostitution
- PC 236.1 – makes human trafficking a felony, including trafficking for commercial sex
Police also retain authority to make arrests for lewd conduct in public, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, and other offenses. But the repeal of the loitering law means simply hanging around areas known for prostitution is no longer a crime by itself.
Debating the Impacts of Repeal
The repeal of PC 653.22 remains controversial today. Supporters argue it ended an unconstitutional and discriminatory law that failed to reduce prostitution. But others contend it limited law enforcement’s ability to take a proactive approach and tackle the issue.
Some police and prosecutors say the loitering offense gave them probable cause to intervene before acts of prostitution occurred. They argue the repeal has hampered efforts to address streetwalking, pimping, human trafficking, and other crimes still plaguing many communities.
However, civil liberties groups counter that other statutes still give law enforcement adequate tools. In their view, ending the problematic loitering law prevented further abuses while allowing police to focus on actual criminal acts, not just the vague standard of “bad intent.” They also argue the repeal encouraged addressing systemic issues contributing to prostitution.
Overall, the impact of repealing PC 653.22 is still unfolding. But the heated debate reflects broader discussions about balancing public safety, constitutional rights, protection of marginalized groups, and finding the most fair and effective laws to combat complex societal problems like prostitution.
The Ongoing Legal Debate
The repeal of California’s loitering with intent law resolved one legal debate but opened others that continue today:
- Should loitering laws aimed at prevention be reinstated if narrowed to address vagueness concerns?
- Do police now lack tools to proactively stop human trafficking and violence against sex workers?
- Should prostitution be decriminalized entirely as a matter of personal liberty?
- What is the right balance between public safety and protection of rights for marginalized groups?
Reasonable minds can disagree on these difficult public policy questions. There are good faith arguments on both sides from those seeking to end exploitation while promoting freedom and constitutional policing. The repeal of PC 653.22 was one step, but crafting equitable laws and policies to address prostitution remains an ongoing challenge.
The National Context
California’s repeal of the loitering law mirrored a national movement away from criminalization over the last two decades:
- Many states have repealed loitering or vagrancy laws seen as vehicles for discrimination.
- Some cities have ended blanket enforcement of prostitution laws, focusing only on cases involving exploitation.
- New York stopped prosecuting those selling sex, targeting buyers and traffickers instead.
- Other locales debate decriminalization as a “harm reduction” approach.
But prostitution laws remain complex across the U.S. Some states still take a strict prosecutorial approach to both buying and selling sex. Others are shifting to treat sex work as a public health issue, not solely a criminal justice one. The intersection of prostitution, rights, and the law continues to evolve.
In summary, here are some key points about California’s now-repealed law against loitering with intent to commit prostitution:
- PC 653.22 aimed to allow police to intervene before acts of prostitution occurred.
- Critics argued it was unconstitutionally vague and open to discriminatory enforcement.
- There were concerns it led to racial profiling and targeting of marginalized groups.
- The statute was repealed in 2016 based on civil liberties and fairness concerns.
- Police retain other laws to crack down on acts of prostitution or solicitation.
- Debate continues around balancing rights, public safety, and finding effective policies.
The repeal of California’s loitering law removed a problematic statute but left many complex issues unresolved. Crafting fair laws to address prostitution while protecting rights remains an evolving legal challenge. Reasonable people can debate where the right balance lies.