Are there any legal limitations on what hygiene functions you can perform in a public restroom?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Public restrooms are made available in buildings as a courtesy to enable the public a convenience while they make use of the primary facility for its intended purpose. One of the famous public library cases involving patron behavior makes it very clear that a public facility only has to allow people to use the place for its stated public function, not for any other tangential uses that one might make of it.[i] Another court has specifically said of public restrooms that, “[t]he public’s right to expect privacy in such locations is reasonably limited to the performance of excretionary and ablutional acts indigenous to a restroom, never for sexual acts of any nature.”[ii]

If restrooms are made available so that people can conveniently relieve themselves and wash their hands while making use of a facility, then shaving or brushing teeth would be unusual, but probably not terribly disturbing there; bathing one’s entire body would seem to go far beyond the intended use of the place. Someone doing that might simply be asked by an employee to leave or might be apprehended by police.

Case law has generally demonstrated that people are entitled to privacy when doing activities involving their own body or health in the stalls of public restrooms.[iii] But because our legal codes do not list every single thing that a person has a right to do and employees can call the police at any time that they feel the need for support, it is impossible to list which actions might be grounds for calling the police on someone in a public restroom.

When police are called, they have to investigate whether an illegal act has occurred; that is how they determine whether to charge someone with a crime. The sad fact is that someone doing something perfectly legitimate, especially someone who looks homeless, could arouse staff suspicion and have to answer police questions about what he was doing in the restroom.[iv] 

The legal principle that behavior has to be consistent with the purpose of the facility comes from court cases interpreting the U.S. Constitution’s free speech rights. Constitutional issues involve actions taken by government entities. So, government facilities, not businesses, have the constitutional right to assert that certain behavior is prohibited because it exceeds the place’s intended use. Businesses and other privately-owned facilities can also assert that certain behavior is prohibited, but they do it under different authority-the basic right to have control over their domain.

Whether this right to limit behavior comes from the Constitution or a place’s own management policies, police involvement always counts as government action. So, once the police arrive, the restroom user’s constitutional rights to privacy, freedom from illegal search and seizure, etc… are legally protected. As indicated throughout the posts about police and courts, there might be an assortment of charges that the police could apply when faced with behavior that is not precisely described in the crimes code. Washing one’s entire body in a public restroom might be disorderly conduct, public nudity, criminal trespass, public indecency, indecent exposure, or any number of other criminal law violations.[v] 

If police charge a restroom user with a crime, he might be able to use constitutional defenses for his behavior in addition to trying to disprove the prosecution’s evidence against him with basic criminal law defenses. Criminal law defenses might come from analyzing the text of the criminal charges or comparing his acts to previous cases.      When a defendant makes a constitutional law claim about how the police handled the situation, it is not a defense that excuses or validates the defendant’s own behavior in the public restroom. It is an accusation that the police did something wrong and that, therefore, the prosecution against this defendant is illegitimate.

Often, defendants in public restroom misbehavior cases, which tend to involve people who have been charged for masturbating, drug transactions, and homosexual behavior, assert that the police violated their Fourteenth Amendment due process right to privacy or their Fourth Amendment privacy rights regarding searches and seizures. These privacy rights are not explicit in the words of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments themselves.[vi]

As is explained in the posts about finding lost property and municipal sweeps of homeless encampments, privacy rights have arisen from cases interpreting the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment search and seizure privacy cases generally ask whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in what he was doing. If the court agrees that the expectation of privacy was reasonable under the circumstances and the police actions invaded the scope of that privacy expectation, then the search and seizure will be deemed illegal and the evidence gleaned cannot be used against the defendant.

The Fourteenth Amendment due process form of privacy is sometimes known as “the right to be left alone.”[vii] Cases analyzing privacy according to that amendment consider privacy to be a type of liberty interest under the due process clause. When doing this analysis, the courts ask whether the government is invading personal rights or actions (like birth control, marriage between people of different races, abortion, assisted suicide) that are “fundamental” or “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”[viii]

If the court does find that fundamental rights have been invaded, the government actors have to stop that invasion of privacy. So, if a government entity, for example a post office, had a sign in its restroom saying “no bathing allowed” and a court declared that private decisions about how and where to bathe are a fundamental right which this rule violated, then the rule would have to be eliminated and after that people would be allowed to bathe in that restroom.[ix]

Prosecutions for dealing drugs and masturbating in public restrooms have been ruled invalid when defendants were caught by police who peeked on them in private stalls.[x] But, as was shown above, the constitutional violations were connected to search and seizure privacy rather than due process privacy even though, similar to the due process cases involving birth control, abortion, and assisted suicide (none of which had any connection to public restrooms), they clearly involve people’s own use of their bodies.

Drug dealing and masturbating (probably charged as “public lewdness”) are more clearly defined and more harshly punished under crimes codes than bathing in a public restroom. But any lack of clarity about whether particular actions are illegal in public restrooms is really more relevant to the defense against the criminal charges than to a claim about constitutional rights. This is why people charged with misbehavior in public restrooms try to use a combination of constitutional defenses and criminal defenses. The criminal law defenses try to show that behavior wasn’t wrong and the constitutional law defenses try to show that no matter what the behavior was, the defendant did it with an expectation of privacy in the most private component of a public place.


[i] Kreimer v. Morristown, 958 F.2d 1242, 1262 (3d Cir. 1992) (“[A]s a limited public forum, the Library is obligated only to permit the public to exercise rights that are consistent with the nature of the Library and consistent with the government’s intent in designating the Library as a pubic forum. Other activities need not be tolerated.”).

[ii] People v. Anonymous, 415 N.Y.S.2d 921 (N.Y. Misc. 2d 1979).

[iii] Courts have come to recognize that a right to privacy exists for occupants of public bathroom stalls.  This recognition has resulted in cases reversing convictions based on evidence obtained through observation in a public restroom because the evidence was gained in violation of these defendants’ reasonable expectation of privacy.  See, e.g., People v. Dezek, 308 N.W.2d 652 (Mich. Ct. App. 1981) (reversing defendant’s conviction of “gross indecency” after he was found with another man in the bathroom); State v. Biggar, 716 P.2d 493 (Haw. 1986) (reversing a drug conviction initiated by an officer peering over the partition in the public bathroom to observe the defendant’s activities); State v. Casconi, 766 P.2d 397 (Or. Ct. App. 1988) (reversing conviction for public masturbation observed in a public bathroom); State v. Brown, 929 S.W.2d 588 (Tex. App. 1996) (reversing conviction for public masturbation observed in a public bathroom).

[iv] See the posts about interacting with the police for more information about police questioning and one’s legal rights.

[v] See the posts on courts for more of an explanation about bringing and proving criminal charges.

[vi] The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause says: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law… .”  U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.  The Fourth Amendment states: “The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated … .”  U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[vii] See, Olmsted v. U.S., 277 U.S. 438, 4788 (1928) (“[The drafters of our Constitution] conferred as against the Government, the right to be let alone, the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”); Publ Util. Comm. v. Pollak, 343 U.S. 451, 467 (1952)(Douglas, William O., dissenting) (“The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedom.”).  See generally,  Samuel D. Warren & Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193, 193 (1890) (“[T]he right to life has come to mean the right to enjoy life, the right to be let alone; the right to liberty secures the exercise of extensive civil privileges.”).

[viii] Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 325 (1937).

[ix] In addition to bringing constitutional claims for civil rights issues, most people also claim that Title 42, section 1983 of the United States Code was violated.  That is the law which entitles people to financial awards in court cases proving that their constitutional rights have been violated.

[x] See generally, Michael R. Flaherty, Annotation, Search and Seizure: Reasonable Expectations of Privacy in Public Restroom, 74 A.L.R. 4th 508 (1989).

Is naked always obscene? What is illegal about being naked when changing clothes or bathing in outdoor public spaces?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The words obscene and obscenity generally refer to printed or electronically published materials, rather than a person’s actions. Exposure of private body parts in person is more likely to be called “public nudity” or “open lewdness” in the law.[i] No matter what it is called, being naked, or at least having genitalia uncovered, is almost always illegal when you are in a place where people would not expect to come upon the sight of someone’s private parts.[ii] This is why people wearing skimpy bathing suits on the beach don’t get in trouble, but people bathing in a park or changing clothes in an alleyway do.

Often, it is a combination of unexpected exposure along with the possibility of offending or exciting an onlooker’s sexual sensibilities that makes public nudity illegal. Indiana courts have declared for decades that their anti-nudity statute was written for the purpose of “protecting the unsuspecting and non-consenting viewer from another’s exposure.”[iii] The Michigan Court of Appeals recently stated that “the purposes of the indecent exposure statute are best fulfilled by focusing on the impact that offensive conduct might have.”[iv]

Statutes, themselves, do not always convey that onlookers have to be surprised or offended and they don’t necessarily tell what degree of nudity is illegal. Some locales have highly specific anti-nudity statutes telling exactly how much exposure is too much and others have broad statutes, leaving more interpretation up to police discretion.

Sample laws:     In Cotati, California, the municipal code says that “It is unlawful for any person over the age of ten years to willfully expose his person…in such a manner that the genitals, vulva, pubis, pubic symphysis, public hair, buttocks, natal cleft, perineum, anus, anal region or pubic hair region is exposed to public view.”[v]      

In Independence, Missouri, the indecent exposure ordinance considers it a criminal act when anyone, “knowingly exposes his/her genitals or buttocks or a female exposes her breasts or is clothed in such a manner under circumstances in which he/she knows he/she will reasonably cause alarm or embarrassment to other persons.”[vi]      

The Code in Grand Rapids, Minnesota simply says, “No person shall appear in any street, park or public place of the city in a state of nudity, in any indecent or lewd dress, or make any indecent or lewd exposure of his person.”[vii]      

Charleston, South Carolina has a similarly broad standard, “No person shall appear in any public place or on property open to the public in a state of nudity or otherwise make any indecent exposure of his or her person.”[viii]

The Code of Federal Regulations, regulating behavior in national parks, is more general in its description of what it calls disorderly conduct:  “A person commits disorderly conduct when, with intent to cause public alarm, nuisance…knowingly or recklessly creating a risk thereof…engages in a display or act that is obscene.”[ix]

Defendants charged with violating the federal regulation at least have the opportunity to assert that they didn’t intend to cause a public alarm or didn’t know they were creating a risk of alarm or nuisance.  And, since the federal regulation does not specify whether nudity alone or behavior combined with nudity might be an obscene “display or act,” there is also flexibility in defending the exposure itself.

The more specific local ordinances are harder to fight in court than the general language of the federal regulation, but those local ordinances come with less of a penalty, usually a ticket.[x] In other words, if the law says, “you can’t expose this part of your body” and a police officer has seen you expose it, then there just is not much flexible interpretation available for a defense.

Sometimes, when the police realize that they are dealing with somebody who cannot pay the fine and does not have a place to get cleaned up, they will transport the accused person to a shelter or some other place where the function that was being done in public can be done in private. That way, the people complaining to the police about having encountered someone naked or partly undressed will see that the police are responding to them and the homeless person gets to do what he needs to do without having court interaction.

This type of police action might not be specified in any legal codes, but that does not make it illegal. Law enforcement officers have broad duties to protect the public and maintain peace and order. So, transporting folks to places where they can wash or get changed or sleep is something that police can do, even though it is neither something they are prohibited from doing nor something that they are required to do.


[i] When researching case law about public nudity in any books by the Thomson West publishing company, which publishes the majority of case reporters, you will find it categorized as “obscenity key 3” and “obscenity key 5”.

[ii] 67 C.J.S. Obscenity § 9 (2005).

[iii] Townsend v. State, 750 N.E.2d 416 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001).

[iv] People v. Huffman, 702 N.W.2d 621 (Mich. Ct. App. 2005).

[v] Cotai, CA., Municipal Code § 9.33.020 (2005).

[vi] Independence, MN., Code of Ordinances § 12.06.006 (2005).

[vii] Grand Rapids, MN., City Code § 42.102 (2005).

[viii] Charleston, SC., City Code § 21.166 (2005).

[ix] 36 C.F.R. § 2.34(a)(2) (2007).

[x] See the blog posts about dealing with police and the courts to find out about responding to tickets when you cannot pay the fines.

Is it possible to get out on bail if you have no money?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The purpose of bail is to assure that defendants will return to court for trial after having been formally accused of a crime at a preliminary hearing. The bail agreement between a court and a defendant establishes a defendant’s promise to pay the court a high amount of money which will then be returned to the defendant when he returns for the hearing.

A better assurance that the defendant will be present for trial is to simply keep him in jail, but that contradicts the notion that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty.[i] In many states, money does not have to be posted; defendants can be released until trial “on their own recognizance.”[ii] Even in those jurisdictions though, if the court believes either that the defendant is likely to not return for trial or to pose a threat to the public, bail may be imposed to remind the defendant to behave and return for trial or else risk staying in jail until the trial.[iii]

For a homeless person, the reasons for denying him bail, such as: no money to put down as a guarantee, no community roots like a job or house, and no way to track him down are the same issues that can be argued in favor of releasing him on his own recognizance. The fact that a homeless defendant has no money with which to post bail also means that the defendant does not have money to pay for transportation out of the jurisdiction. Not having the responsibilities of a job or house would seem to leave a defendant flexible enough to abscond, but if the defendant has already been living in the jurisdiction without those roots, there is reason to believe that he has no place else to go. Similarly, the lack of an address and the defendant’s status as homeless provide even more routes by which to track him down than anyone who does have a permanent address because the homeless tend to be out in public areas and to repeatedly access particular social services sites.


[i] The presumption of innocence is described and analyzed very thoroughly in 1 Wayne R. LeFave, et al., Criminal Procedure, §1.4 part (d) “Accusatorial Burdens” (2d. Ed. Current through 2006 update.) In support of their analysis, the authors of that authoritative treatise cite to the following U.S. Supreme Court cases: Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 525-26, 78 S.Ct. 1332, 1341-2 (1958); Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 98 S.Ct. 1930 (1978); Bell v. Wofish, 441 U.S. 20, 533, 99 S.Ct 1861, 1871 (1979), and Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 54, 69 S.Ct. 1347, 1350 (1949). For a detailed explanation of the constitutional right to be released on bail, see 8 CJS Bail §20. (CJS is Corpus Juris Secundum, a legal encyclopedia.)

[ii] Lynn C. Cobb, Annotation, Application of State Statutes Establishing Pretrial Release of Accused on Personal Recognizance as Presumptive Form of Release, 78 A.L.R.3d 780 (1977).

[iii] 1 Wayne R. LeFave, et al., Criminal Procedure, §1.4 Part (f) “Minimizing the Burdens of Accusation and Litigation” (2d. Ed. Current through 2006 update.); Lynn C. Cobb, Annotation, Application of State Statutes Establishing Pretrial Release of Accused on Personal Recognizance as Presumptive Form of Release, 78 A.L.R.3d 780, § 2(a) (1977).

What are some of the criminal charges commonly used against the homeless?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

The criminal charges most commonly used against the homeless, in connection with their homelessness, have all been mentioned elsewhere in this blog, but we present them here for quick reference. These are merely summaries; each state or municipality will have its own precise definitions of crimes. Locate your state and local codes through http://www.justia.com/us-states/.  If your local code is not at that site, try this one http://www.spl.org/default.asp?pageID=collection_municodes.

Note that these are all minor charges, typically punished with citations rather than jail time. Since defendants only get a full trial if their crime can be punished with jail time, there is hardly any opportunity to defend against these kinds of charges.

Disorderly conduct – Fighting, making noise, or “creating a hazardous or physically offensive condition”[i] without any legitimate reason and simply for the purpose of creating trouble.

Loitering – Lingering in a place or in a way “not usual for law abiding individuals”[ii] and which creates discomfort among other people nearby.

Obstructing traffic[iii]Blocking a public path so that vehicles or pedestrians either cannot pass or can only pass in an inconvenient way.

Open lewdness[iv]Exposing private parts of one’s own body when it is expected that others will see and possibly be alarmed or offended.

Panhandling[v]Asking people in a public place to give money to you personally without promising to do anything in return. Sometimes called “begging.”

Public nuisance[vi] – Unreasonably interfering with a right common to the general public.

Trespassing[vii] – Entering private property without the owner’s permission.

Vagrancy – This is an archaic term. There was a time when being someone who wandered aimlessly could get someone charged with vagrancy. Now, vagrancy has the same meaning as loitering.


[i] Model Penal Code §250.2

[ii] Model Penal Code §250.6.

[iii] Model Penal Code §250.7

[iv] Model Penal Code §251.1

[v] Barrett A. Lee and Chad R. Farrell, Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime: Homelessness, Panhandling, and the Public, 38 URBAN AFFAIRS REV., 299 (2003).

[vi] Black’s Law Dictionary 1095 (7th Ed. 1999).

[vii] Model Penal Code §221.2

Under what circumstances might your conversations with police count as criminal confessions?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Any time someone voluntarily tells the police about his own involvement in an illegal act, it is a confession that can be used against him.[i] Telling police about tagging along with other people and watching while they committed a crime can be a confession to conspiracy. Casually talking to police can count as a confession even if the police are not asking questions about any particular crime. Admitting a crime to an officer in an undercover disguise can be a confession as well.

Notice that any of these examples could take place before or after being arrested and inside jail or out of police custody altogether. This is because the communications can be regarded as confessions whether or not police custody or arrest is involved.[ii] At least if they do take place while the confessor is under police control, there are some constitutional protections that might keep the confession from being used in a prosecution.

Almost everyone is familiar with the promise that police make on television, “you have the right to remain silent; anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” These promises are used in real life as well. They developed from the Supreme Court case of Miranda v. Arizona[iii] as ways of warning defendants of two constitutional rights: 1. the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate ones self[iv] and 2. The Sixth Amendment right to have assistance of counsel while defending ones self in a criminal case.[v]

Although they are stated as soon as anyone is arrested on TV, these rights have to be stated in real life only before an interrogation begins or before the police establish a situation which they know is “reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response.”[vi] Since several decades before these warnings were required, the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment[vii] has been used to protect criminal defendants whose confessions were forced by torment, teasing, or lying; those confessions cannot be considered believable because of the way they were coerced.[viii] Confessions obtained through fair and proper (due) processes are believable.

Comforting though it may be to know that three constitutional amendments are available for analyzing confessions, criminal defendants cannot forget the timing of when these amendments are useful. First, they exist as protections before a defendant confesses. A defendant who is able to remember that he does not have to be a witness against himself, that a confession cannot be forced from him, and that he has a right to have a lawyer with him during police questioning can avoid confessing altogether.

The second time when these amendments are helpful is long after a confession has taken place. It is past when the police have stopped investigating and have turned the case over to the prosecutor, after the charges have been filed, and when the criminal trial is about to begin. It is then that the defendant’s attorney argues that information gleaned from a forced confession should not be used as evidence against the defendant.[ix] By then, the confession may have been reported in the news and influenced potential jurors. Even if it hasn’t made the news, an illegally obtained confession is inadmissible evidence.[x]


[i] Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291,300, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 1689 (1980); Hoffa v. U.S. 385 U.S. 293, 87 S.Ct. 408 (1966); Dickerson v. U.S., 530 U.S. 428, 120 S.Ct. 2326 (2000).

 

[ii] William E. Ringel, SEARCHES AND SEIZURES, ARRESTS AND CONFESSIONS, (West, 2007) Chapter 27 “‘Custodial Interrogation'” Requirement of Miranda.” See also Chapter 25 “Voluntariness of Confessions and Admissions.”

[iii] Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S.Ct. 1602 (1966).

[iv] U.S. Constitution Amendment V, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself…”

[v] U.S. Constitution Amendment VI, “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

[vi] Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 292, 100 S.Ct. 1682, 1685 (1980).

[vii] U.S. CONST. Amend. XIV “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

[viii] Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278, 56 S.Ct. 461 (1936); Ashcraft. V. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143, 64 S.Ct. 921 (1944).

[ix] A practical demonstration of how to make a case to keep a forced confession from being used as evidence is in 5 Am. Jur. Trials 331(1)(B), Excluding Illegally Obtained Evidence.(updated through February 2007). This source has sample questions to ask of witnesses, samples of documents to file in court, and demonstrations of how to prove various possible claims.

[x] Excluding forced confessions from evidence developed through a series of cases interpreting the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self incrimination. Here is a summary of that evolution http://supreme.lp.findlaw.com/constitution/amendment05/09.html.

Do you always have to leave a place simply because a police officer tells you to move on?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

When the police tell homeless people to move away from where they are, it is usually an unspoken warning that if they do not move, they will be charged with a crime, perhaps the crime of trespassing if they are on private property, maybe loitering or disorderly conduct if they are on public property. Everyone, even people who are not homeless, can get charged if they fail to move away from an area when the police tell them to disperse.

In a 2011 manual titled Criminalizing Crisis, the National Law Center for Homelessness  and Poverty put forth a model order for police departments to implement as a way of instructing police about interacting with homeless people. (The model order is on page 31 of the manual.) This model order includes guidance about when homeless people can be made to “move on”.

This is not a legal issue that is unique to the homeless experience, but it impacts the homeless more than others simply because of where they spend their time. A 1983 Supreme Court case[i] ruled that statutes authorizing police to move people have to specify some sort of illegal action so that “ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”[ii]

The typical disorderly conduct law includes a line stating that when groups of three or more people block a sidewalk or cause some other disturbance, the police can require them to disperse. The exemplary language in the Model Penal Code says, “Where [three] or more persons are participating in a course of disorderly conduct likely to cause substantial harm or serious inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, a peace officer or other public servant engaged in executing or enforcing the law may order the participants and others in the immediate vicinity to disperse.”[iii]

Loitering is the “move along” charge more likely to apply to individuals or pairs. The Model Penal Code version of it says:  “A person commits a violation if he loiters or prowls in a place, at a time, or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals under circumstances that warrant alarm for the safety of persons or property in the vicinity. Among the circumstances which may be considered in determining whether such alarm is warranted is the fact that the actor takes flight upon appearance of a peace officer, refuses to identify himself, or manifestly endeavors to conceal himself or any object. Unless flight by the actor or other circumstance makes it impracticable, a peace officer shall prior to any arrest for an offense under this section afford the actor an opportunity to dispel any alarm which would otherwise be warranted, by requesting him to identify himself and explain his presence and conduct.”[iv]

An authority on municipal law, writing about police regulation of sidewalks and streets, says that “the gravamen of the offense is the doing of the prohibited act, and not disobedience to the order of the officer; hence the offense does not depend upon the whim or caprice of the officer.”[v] He may be correct that the charges sound like they can only be applied based on a defendant’s conduct, but in practice it is nearly impossible to dispute a loitering or disorderly conduct charge without sounding argumentative in a way that will convince the judge that you must also have been argumentative with the officer.

Being argumentative with a police officer is enough of an action to create cause for alarm, a component of both disorderly conduct and loitering.[vi] Defending against one of these charges typically requires proof that you were not about to cause a problem.

In loitering cases, there are not likely to be any witnesses available to validate a defendant’s claim about why he was there at that time and whether he seemed threatening. In disorderly conduct cases, whether the defendant’s actions were likely to cause harm, inconvenience, or annoyance is determined by the officer’s own perception.

So the way to avoid trouble in the short-term is to move whenever the police say so, no matter how uncomfortable or inconvenient it is. In the long-term, it can be legally helpful to keep track of patterns of when police give these move-along orders and which officers tend to give them. If it becomes clear that police simply do not want the homeless in a certain area on Friday and Saturday nights, then avoiding trouble is easy. If it becomes obvious that police are timing their move along orders to interrupt sleep or eating, then the homeless people being disrupted might be able to make a claim of police harassment.  (See the ACLU’s Community Action Manual on “Fighting Police Abuse“.

The National Coalition for the homeless maintains a website about “Criminalization of the Homeless” with summaries of court cases in which vagrancy, curfew and loitering laws have been contested. Anyone planning to argue that those kinds of laws are unjustly written or unfairly applied would be wise to read these case summaries and then look for the full case opinions and cases that reference these cases. http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/crimreport/casesummaries_3.html

[i] Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352; 103 S.Ct. 1855 (1983). [ii] Id. at 357; 1858. [iii] Model Penal Code §250.1 [iv] Model Penal Code §250.6 [v] MCQUILLIN, EUGENE, A TREATISE ON THE LAW OF MUNICIPAL CORPORATIONS 3d Ed., §24.596 (updated through July 2006) [vi] This point is explained in the post about having to identify one’s self to police.  See also the post about what to do if police are rough with you.

When police commit you to the mental hospital, are they entitled to information that you give to the hospital?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

There is not an automatic assumption that the police are entitled to your mental health records simply because it was they who got you to the hospital. Mental health records, like all medical records, are private[i] and are only supposed to be used as evidence in a court case with the patient’s express permission. However, the USA PATRIOT Act and The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) both provide legal ways for law enforcement agencies to obtain people’s medical records.

HIPAA is the law that protects the content of medical records from being used for anything other than the patient’s medical care. However that law does allow medical offices to give private medical records to courts “in response to an order of a court or administrative tribunal, provided that the covered entity discloses only the protected health information expressly authorized by such order; or (ii) In response to a subpoena, discovery request, or other lawful process, that is not accompanied by an order of a court or administrative tribunal.”[ii]

This second section, about subpoenas, specifically allows courts to get medical records directly from health providers without the patient’s permission when the subpoena has been sent to the patient’s last known address.[iii] Obviously, this means that homeless people who do not have a current address on file with their doctor’s office can find that their medical records were admitted into court without their knowledge. HIPAA also allows law enforcement officers (police and the FBI) to get medical records without a patient’s permission when investigating: the identity of a dead body that might be the patient, the identity of a fugitive, or a crime against the patient.[iv]

The USA PATRIOT Act allows the FBI to “make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities…”[v]

Medical records are specifically mentioned in a later section specifying that only the Director or Deputy Director of the FBI or the Executive Assistant Director of National Security can use this law to request a warrant for medical records.[vi]

Even though this question is about how police and prosecutors might obtain medical records to use in bringing criminal charges or proving someone’s guilt in a crime, this is a good place to mention how and when medical records might be used in a civil case in which a homeless person might be suing for a breach of contract or some consumer right. There is no need to worry about the possibility that a civil court opponent will be able to claim “he didn’t pay the rent because he’s crazy” “he’s accusing me of negligence because he’s depressed” or anything like that. There are two protections that keep that kind of remark from getting into court documents or testimony.

First of all, the evidence rules require that only relevant information be presented in a case.[vii] Medical records are relevant in disability claims and medical malpractice claims. In those cases, the medical records are offered as evidence by the patient not the opponent in the case. They are not used to support an accusation against a sick person; they are presented as proof of the patient’s own claim for his rights. In cases about not paying debts or not fulfilling a duty, the health of neither the debtor nor the creditor has anything to do with whether a legal right was violated. The medical records would be irrelevant in relation to those types of legal controversies.

Privacy is the second legal protection against having medical records used as evidence. The medical community has a serious professional obligation to keep those records secret. The few court-related exceptions to that obligation involve limited police investigations, as described in the previous section. As a professional obligation, the rule about privacy in patient records comes not only from the law,[viii] but also from the canons of professional ethics for medical professionals. A doctor or nurse or other licensed medical professional who releases patient information despite the ethics rules can lose his license to practice in that profession.[ix] If you believe this has happened to you, contact your state’s professional licensure office for a complaint form.[x]


[i] On its Web site http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa/, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides thorough and clear information about the legal obligation to keep medical records private. That site has the full-text of the HIPAA statute enacted by Congress as well as the Health and Human Services regulations detailing how that statute is to be carried out. The site also has questions and answers in plain English and a complaint form that patients can file with the Department if HHS if a doctor’s office releases medical records in violation of the law.

[ii] 45 C.F.R. §164.512(e)(updated through August 2006).

[iii] Id. at § 164.512(e)(iii)(1)(a).

[iv] 45 CFR §164.512(f) (updated through August 2006). This can be a way of assuring that scientific evidence is collected and preserved for trial. A comparable situation has been in state laws for many years allowing hospital emergency rooms to collect hair and fluid samples from rape victims and give them immediately and directly to police investigating the rape.

[v] 50 USC § 1861(a)(1) (as of August 2006).

[vi] Id. at § 1861(a)(3).

[vii] Rule 402 of the Federal Rules of Evidence states that, “All relevant evidence is admissible, except as otherwise provided by the Constitution of the United States, by Act of Congress, by these rules, or by other rules prescribed by the supreme Court pursuant to statutory authority. Evidence which is not relevant is not admissible.” State court systems have their own rules of evidence; all of them model their rule about relevance closely to the federal rule.

[viii] As noted several footnotes ago, the HIPAA statute written by Congress and the regulations written by the Department of Health and Human Services about keeping medical records private are all available for free on the Internet at http://www.hhs.gov/ocr/hipaa/ along with frequently asked questions, clear fact sheets, and a complaint form to file with HHS if a doctor’s office improperly reveals medical record content.

[ix] The American Medical Association has the Principles of Medical Ethics online at http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/2498.html. Principle IV is about patient privacy. The American Nursing Association has the nurses’ Code of Ethics at http://www.nursingworld.org/ethics/ecode.htm. A particular hospital’s code of ethics will usually be available from its patient relations or quality control office. The American Hospital Association has explanatory issues pages, including HIPAA as an issue, at http://www.aha.org/aha/issues/index.html.

[x] Professional licenses might be granted by any number of agencies or departments in each state. Look for “medical licensing” in your state government’s home page http://www.state.al.us/ (substitute your state’s two initials for AL) or ask a librarian how to file a licensure complaint against a particular type of professional in your state.

Is it true that the police can have you committed to a mental hospital against your will?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

When the police believe that someone is on the verge of harming another person, they can charge him with making threats, attempted assault, attempted murder, or other crimes that represent movement towards violence. When it appears to the police that the suspect’s mental health is causing ominous behavior, even if the potential violence would be against the suspect himself, they have the authority to take the suspect to a mental hospital for evaluation and possible commitment.

That authority to admit someone to a mental hospital comes not from state crimes codes, but from each state’s mental health laws, which are part of the civil code. For that reason, being admitted to a mental hospital without choosing to be admitted there is sometimes referred to as “civil commitment.” It is also known as “involuntary commitment.” In every state there are different standards for the behavior that warrants commitment and also regarding who can commit another person and how the committed person has to be treated.[i]

Typically, the mental health codes authorize only health professionals to involuntarily commit somebody to a mental hospital. Those laws also indicate what kinds of behavior those health professionals have to witness in order to make the commitment and what can be done with a patient who is admitted that way. Often, the laws will have measurable ways of deciding whether to commit someone, for example: threatening suicide within the past twenty-four hours or being delusional to the point of not being able to respond to the officers in a normal way.[ii]

Laws about the hospital’s obligations for handling someone who has been involuntarily committed tend to declare how soon and how thoroughly the patient has to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. The state mental health laws also dictate how an involuntarily committed mental patient can argue against the commitment.

Those sections of law usually require that a legal hearing be convened. At the hearing, the goal is to ascertain if the legal problem, i.e. the risk of harm to self or others, will still exist if the involuntarily committed person is released from the hospital. Because this is a legal proceeding involving interpretation of statutes, state laws require that indigent mental health patients be represented by a court-appointed attorney or public defender or a privately hired lawyer at the commitment hearing.

Despite the existence of legal procedures intended to protect the rights of people involuntarily committed to mental institutions, The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law strongly opposes those commitments.[iii] The Center’s years of legal work on behalf of the mentally ill and their observation of involuntary commitments has convinced them that the practice is only acceptable in the case of a true emergency. Recognizing that “outpatient commitment” is ordered as the result of many of those hearings that the law requires with involuntary commitments, the Bazelon Center has a long list of reasons that they oppose involuntary outpatient commitments as well.[iv]


[i] The treatment advocacy keeps track of state commitment laws. http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/browse-by-state The states’ basic standards for behavior that will lead to involuntary commitments are also included in that chart. To find a state’s mental health laws on your own, the best strategy is to look in the index to the state’s statutory code for topics that come under the heading of “mental health” or “health and welfare-mental” or “health and human services-mental.”

[ii] See, Linda A. Teplin, Police Discretion and Mentally Ill Persons, National Institute of Justice Journal, July 2000, pp.9-15. This article carefully explains how and when police decide whether to take a suspect to a mental institution rather than arresting him. At the end are footnotes referencing government reports as well as other journal articles from the fields of psychology and sociology all of which involve issues connected with police handling of mental health patients in crisis.

[iii] The Bazelon Center’s position statement is available at http://www.bazelon.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=BG1RhO3i3rI%3d&tabid=324. The Bazelon Center’s Web site also has summaries of court cases about involuntary commitments and overviews of major scholarly research studies about outpatient mental health commitments.

[iv] Id. 

The Council of State Governments Justice Center creates and compiles a lot of authoritative information about police interactions with people who have mental illness.

Do you have to answer questions from the police if they are not accusing you of wrongdoing?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

A previous post conveys that the police are required to give citizens the benefit of the doubt in potential loitering situations by asking them about their identity and purpose. Clearly, police have legal authority and legitimate public safety reasons for asking questions of people on the streets. Simply asking about someone to tell his name or show proof of identity is a perfectly legal thing for law enforcement officers to do.[i]

Some states have a specific statute requiring members of the public to identify themselves to the police.[ii] The Supreme Court has held that police can arrest anyone who does not identify himself when asked to by police.[iii] In that Supreme Court case, police were following up on a report about an assault. When the officer arrived at the scene and came upon a drunken man, he asked the man, multiple times, to identify himself but was refused every time which not only kept him from fully investigating that potential suspect, but also delayed him in pursuing other possible suspects.

The officer arrested the intoxicated man in accordance with the state’s “stop and identify” statute. The arrested man later sued the police claiming that his Constitutional rights of freedom from unwarranted search and seizure and his right not to incriminate himself had been violated. But the Supreme Court declared that stating one’s name does not convey enough information to be incriminating and that asking about identity is reasonably related to investigating a crime scene, and is not an unreasonable search.

Usually, when the police ask for people’s identification information they are seeking information not only about the names of these folks in the area but also about crimes that have been reported in the neighborhood. Collecting information by stopping people and questioning them is a basic investigative technique.

When they suspect that the person they have stopped is connected with a crime, patting him down to search for weapons is a legally permissible action for police to take. This practice was questioned and approved long ago in a Supreme Court case called Terry v. Ohio.[iv] If the pat-down search yields evidence connecting the suspect to the crime, that evidence can be used in the criminal trial against that suspect even though the police conducted the search without getting a warrant.

Routine police questioning happens when the police have set-up a system of questioning and are following that system. They could, for example, question everybody who matches the description of a suspect or everyone who might have been in that same vicinity when a crime occurred. Routinely stopping the same innocent person for questioning unrelated to an investigation would be abnormal police practice. It might even be harassment. It might be worth reporting to the police department’s disciplinary office , your local police review committee –list available from National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, the American Civil Liberties Union,[v] or any local homeless advocacy service for investigation.[vi]

There is quite a body of law about what happens when people get in altercations with the police.[vii] Generally, the law concludes that the police are allowed to restrain or detain people who give them a hard time because there is a risk that the scene will arouse trouble involving other people present in the area. Some have argued that if they cannot use “offensive, derisive or annoying words”[viii] against the police, their free speech has been compromised. But, the Supreme Court says that kind of communication could “incite an immediate breach of the peace”[ix] and is therefore in the category of hate speech, not protected under the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

People who do not carry identification documents, even those who used to carry identification until it was confiscated or not returned in a previous police encounter, need to remember the legal rationale for why the police ask for identification before getting mad at the officers. This is yet another legal situation in which knowledge of the law might not help someone once he gets in trouble, but can help someone to avoid getting into trouble.

Certainly, homeless people have historical and legitimate reasons to believe that if they identify themselves to police, the officers will check for any outstanding arrest warrants against them. Realizing, though, that the police are likely to be asking about identity as a way of investigating a particular person or crime or else trying to ascertain whether someone is drunk, drugged, or dangerous might lead a person to put effort into assuring the police that he is none of those and that he might even be helpful to the officers.

If the officer simply wants information and he is given that information when he asks for it, then the transaction is over. The officer has done his investigative task and now has other things to do. If the person who has been asked for the information is not or was not committing a crime, does not give the officer a reason to suspect him of existing or potential wrongdoing, and does not distract the officer from his investigative task by acting surly, there is no reason for that officer to arrest or cite him.

On the other hand, there are plenty of legal records showing that police can be abusive.[x] Some courts have held that police officers are entitled to a certain amount of lenience in controlling their tempers and actions because their work is unusually stressful and they are at constant risk of facing dangerous and uncontrolled people.[xi] The obvious counter argument has also been made; the police have more training and experience than anyone to deal with emergencies, danger, and the wide array of public behavior and therefore the public should be able to expect police to control themselves under pressure.[xii]

No matter which of these opposing perspectives a court has, it will still acknowledge that police officers are allowed to use their own discretion in judging how necessary it might be to handcuff and arrest someone who does not answer their questions while they are trying to investigate and control a situation.[xiii] Knowing that the legal system entitles police officers to use that discretion, an individual can try to get the officers’ discretion in his favor by acknowledging the broad legal context of being questioned, rather than responding as if he is being accused or criticized.


[i] Internal Revenue Service v. Delgado, 466 U.S. 210, 2116 (1984).

[ii] Find “stop and identify” statutes by looking for phrases like “interference with police” “obstructing police” “obstruction of justice” and “resisting arrest” in the state crimes code; a law against failing to identify yourself to police is likely to be included as a component of one of those crimes. Articles commenting on “stop and identify” laws include: Shelli Calland, Stop and identify statutes do not violate the Fourth or Fifth Amendments, 40 HARV. C.R.-C.L. L. REV., 251 (2005); James G. Warner, Dudley Do Wrong: Analysis of a Stop and Identify Statute, 39 AKRON L. Rev. 245 (2006). See also: What Constitutes Offense of Obstructing or Resisting Officer, 48 ALR 746.

[iii] Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, Humboldt City, 542 U.S. 177, 124 S. Ct. 2451 (2004).

[iv] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868. (1968).

[v] The chapters and affiliate offices of the ACLU are listed at http://www.aclu.org/affiliates/index.html

[vi] The National Coalition for the Homeless maintains a list of organizations doing homelessness advocacy http://www.nationalhomeless.org/resources/state/index.html.

[vii] Michael G. Walsh, Annotation, Insulting Words Addressed Directly to Police Officer as Breach of Peace or Disorderly Conduct, 14 ALR4th 1252 (1982). This is an article summarizing scores of cases from all over the country.

[viii] Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 at 573; 62 S. Ct. 766, at 770 (1942).

[ix] Id. at 572 and 769.

[x] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has a collection of legal information about police misconduct including news reports, legal documents from court cases, legislative resources, and fact sheets available for anyone to download. https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/police-practices

[xi] There is a detailed discussion of this perspective in Pavish v. Meyers, 225 P.633 (Wash. 1924). Duncan v. U.S., 219 A2d. 110 (D.C. App., 1966) remanded on other grounds 379 F.2d. 148; City of St. Petersburg v. Calbeck, 121 So.2d 814 (Fla. App. 1960); St. Paul v. Morris, 104 N.W. 2d. 902 (Minn. 1960) cert. denied 365 U.S. 815. State v.McKenna, 415 A.2d. 729 (RI., 1980) “We believe the officers justifiably reacted in anger as any group of persons of average sensibilities would have.”; Com. v. Hock, 696 A.2d 225 (Pa. Super., 1997) “we agree with the majority of states which “can conceive of no reason why a police officer, or other public official responsible for maintaining law and order, should have to be the object of obscenities and vulgarities of the type which, if addressed to a layman, would have a direct tendency to incite him to acts of violence.” [Citing Bale v. Ryder, 290 A.2d 359 (Me. 1972)].

[xii] Chicago v. Blakemore, 305 NE2d 687 (Ill. App, 1973); People v. Slaton, 322 N.E.2d 533 (Ill. App. 1974); Swann v. Huntsville, 455 So.2d 944 (Ala. Crim. App. 1984).

[xiii] See MCQUILLIN, EUGENE, A TREATISE ON THE LAW OF MUNICIPAL CORPORATIONS 3d Ed., §45.18 (updated through July 2006) for a thorough explanation of police duties and arrest powers. Footnotes following that explanation lead to cases and statutes across the country. Note, however that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a local ordinance that made it “unlawful for any person to assault, strike or in any manner oppose, molest, abuse or interrupt any policeman in the execution of his duty, or any person summoned to aid in making an arrest.” The Court held that the statute was so broad and vague that it violated the First Amendment right to free speech because almost anything that anyone might ever say to a police officer could be construed as an interruption. Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 41, 107 S.Ct. 2501 (1987).

When can you use a post office box instead of a street address?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

In general, a post office box can be used instead of a street address when establishing a place for people to send mail, but not when someone needs to identify himself to the government. For example, street address is normally required for obtaining a government-issued photo I.D., registering a car, and applying for jobs.

Here is one handy work-around that works when the post office has competition from another nearby delivery service:

Post office box customers can use the post office’s street address as their street address and identify their P.O. Box number just within the zip code of that street address. The rule explaining this is at Section 4.5.4 of the Domestic Mail Manual, under the topic of “competitive P.O. Box services.”  http://pe.usps.gov/text/dmm300/508.htm#1141179 The phrase “competitive P.O. Box services” means that the post office in that neighborhood has to compete with a UPS store or a similar private business that offers package delivery services. So, if somebody has post office box #1234, and his post office is located at 100 Main St. in Long Beach, California, he can tell everyone that his street address is 100 Main Street, Long Beach, California, 90808-1234.

Applying for a job doesn’t sound like communicating with the government, but the communication is indirect; employers are required to make payments to the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service on behalf of employees. They have to identify each employee by name, social security number, and address in order to make those payments.

When registering to vote, it is permissible for a homeless person to give the street address of a relative or an agency he or she is involved with. But it is also necessary to identify where you reside or expect to continue residing (name the park, bridge, or other location specifically) because the voting system is intended to appoint representatives for populations according to their geographic designations. The National Coalition for the Homeless has a full explanation, resources for registering or even coordinating a voter registration event, and advocacy materials available at  http://nationalhomeless.org/campaigns/voting/.

There is not merely one law stating that people have to give the government their street address. Instead, there are minute regulations, many separate hard-to-find requirements by government agencies, declaring when and where addresses are to be used in each agency’s conduct of business.

Criminal law requirements for homeless contact information are generally stricter than the procedures in the social services codes. Probation rules and sex offender registries, for example, require that offenders provide a street address where they can be located if an officer comes looking for them; living on the street is simply not an option. A homeless shelter or halfway house address may be used if the offender truly resides there, but the probation and sex offender registry rules additionally require that offenders report to an agent on a regular basis and immediately notify police authorities of any change in their whereabouts.[i]

The agencies involved with housing and health and income services, for example HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and HHS (Health and Human Services), which routinely interact with the homeless population have ways for people to access their services by communicating through channels other than mail or by having the mail sent to places where clients do not live, but can at least check-in.


[i] Sample sex offender registry statutes show the variety of ways states verify street addresses:
California “Beginning on or before the 30th day following initial registration upon release, a transient must re-register no less than once every 30 days thereafter.” Cal. Penal Code §290(c)(1).

Connecticut “the Department of Public Safety shall verify the address of each registrant by mailing a non-forwardable verification form to the registrant at the registrant’s last reported address. Such form shall require the registrant to sign a statement that the registrant continues to reside at the registrant’s last reported address and return the form by mail by a date which is ten days after the date such form was mailed to the registrant. The form shall contain a statement that failure to return the form or providing false information is a violation of section 54-251, 54-252, 54-253 or 54-254, as the case may be. Each person required to register under section 54-251, 54-252, 54-253 or 54-254 shall have such person’s address verified in such manner every ninety days after such person’s initial registration date.” Ct. Gen. Stat. Ann. §54-257(c).

District of Columbia “The procedures and requirements [of the offender registration agency] may include….(1) Verify address information or other information at least annually, or at more frequent intervals as specified by the Agency;(2) Return address verification forms;(3) Appear in person for purposes of verification;(4) Cooperate in the taking of fingerprints and photographs, as part of the verification process; and (5) Update any information that has changed since any preceding registration or verification as part of the verification process.” DC Code §22-4008(a).

Florida “Each time a sexual offender’s driver’s license or identification card is subject to renewal, and, without regard to the status of the offender’s driver’s license or identification card, within 48 hours after any change in the offender’s permanent or temporary residence or change in the offender’s name by reason of marriage or other legal process, the offender shall report in person to a driver’s license office”…. “A sexual offender who vacates a permanent residence and fails to establish or maintain another permanent or temporary residence shall, within 48 hours after vacating the permanent residence, report in person to the sheriff’s office of the county in which he or she is located.” Fl. Stat. Ann. §943.0435 (4)(a)&(b).

If the police come looking for you, does a shelter have to turn you over to them?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

A place of shelter is not a place of asylum from the law. On the other hand, it is also not a place where the homeless should feel at risk of being rounded-up by the police. Unless someone commits a crime in a shelter or the police come to the shelter looking for a particular person, shelter staff have no legal obligation to identify residents to police.

If the police come to question a resident as a potential witness or perpetrator, someone who prevents the officers from having access to that resident can be charged with obstruction of justice or obstruction of process.[i]

There is a whole spectrum of interactions that might occur between shelter staff and police who come looking for a resident.  At one end of the spectrum are the police with a warrant to search or seize.  They might be there to seize a person or evidence.  If they come to seize a person, the warrant is an arrest warrant.

As explained elsewhere in this blog, judges issue search and seizure warrants when police and prosecutors have given them probable cause to believe that evidence of a particular crime is located in the place to be searched.[ii] When the shelter-police interaction is at this end of the spectrum, the shelter has no choice but to comply with the police. Staff who interfere with the officers’ carrying out the warrant are blatantly obstructing justice.  They might be handcuffed and immediately arrested so they can’t continue to impede the police work.

At the other end of the spectrum is a scene in which police have heard a vague complaint about a minor offense and come to the shelter asking the staff to present all of the male residents ages twenty to forty who have blue jeans. Here the police have not conveyed that a crime has occurred or that they even know who they are looking for.  They are putting the staff in the dubious position of disrupting multiple innocent residents who came into the shelter only seeking a safe indoor place to rest.

At that point, the police might be causing the serious interference-interference with the fundamental purpose of the shelter.  The shelter staff have to do their jobs and provide the residents with a place to rest.  It would probably not be an obstruction of justice if they asked the police for more information so that fewer residents were interrupted or if they encouraged the police to come back and look for their suspect outside the building the next morning when the residents left for the day.

In between these two poles of the spectrum are numerous possibilities. Maybe a victim or a witness saw an attacker run into the shelter.  Maybe the police have been following a shelter resident as part of a major investigation.  Maybe the homeless have been crime targets and the police want to get to know them and help them avoid being victims.  The decision about whether to charge shelter staff with obstruction will depend on the police officers’ assessment of the public safety risk involved if they are hindered from getting to a shelter resident, i.e. it depends on police discretion.[iii]

There are other potential criminal charges, aside from obstruction crimes, that shelter staff can face for not identifying residents to the police. They might, for example, be harboring a fugitive. Getting between the police and a shelter resident they’ve come to arrest could be harboring a fugitive.[iv] Even when counselors at a shelter have confidential knowledge of residents’ crimes, it does not mean that those counselors can hide those clients when the police come looking for them.  They might be able to avoid disclosing clients’ counseling records for evidence, but they cannot keep the police away from those clients.[v]

Shelter staff can also have criminal liability for not identifying a resident when they know the resident is repeatedly committing a crime.  The first time a shelter worker sees a resident stealing from other residents or dealing drugs in the shelter, he has a basic citizen’s obligation to report the crime to the police.  If he doesn’t report the crime that first time, he’s not likely to be charged with a crime himself. (Although he should serve as a witness for the prosecution since he saw the illegal act.)

After the first time however, accomplice or conspiracy charges might be brought against the shelter worker who knows about a pattern of criminal behavior in the shelter but doesn’t report it to the police.  Basically, an accomplice is someone who “gave assistance or encouragement or failed to perform a legal duty to prevent”[vi] a crime.   A conspirator joins with others “for the purpose of committing…some unlawful or criminal act.”[vii]


[i] Obstruction of justice or process is defined and examined in 67 C.J.S. Obstructing Justice § 24 (2002). In the federal system, the statute against obstruction of justice/process is published in 18 USC §§ 1501-20 (2007). If local or state police are obstructed in their efforts, the state’s version of an obstruction of justice charge would apply. Find these by using the following terms in the index to the state statutes: obstruction of justice, police, interference with arrest, interference with process, and crimes.

[ii] Robert M. Bloom, Searches, Seizures, and Warrants (Praeger 2003). This book tells about every aspect of law that applies to warrants for searches and seizures.

[iii] To learn more about police discretion, See American Bar Association, Standards Relating to the Urban Police Function 1-43 (1972 & Supp. 1973). (These standards were developed by a joint committee of ABA members and members of the International Association of Chiefs of Police). Also, search in the National Criminal Justice Resource Center for the phrase “police discretion” to get links to full-text articles, reports, and book chapters on the topic. http://www.ncjrs.gov/index.html

[iv] 39 Am. Jur. 2d Harboring Criminals § 3 (2006).

[v] A related but much more extreme legal obligation arises when a mental health professional knows that a client seeks to hurt someone. When that happens, the mental health professional is allowed to divulge confidential client information to police, but only to the extent necessary to protect the client’s intended victim. To read more about this and see a comparison of state laws, see John C. Williams, Liability of One Treating Mentally Afflicted Patient For Failure to Warn or Protect Third Persons Threatened by Patient, 83 A.L.R. 3d 1201.

[vi] Black’s Law Dictionary, 6th Ed. 17 (1990).

[vii] Id. at 309.