On the books since the incorporation of the United States, vagrancy laws were long considered indispensable to the power of the police to keep the public peace. In cases like Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), vagrancy laws were even identified as the benchmark against which the legitimacy of other police measures was to be determined. Even as other criminal regulations were subject to scrutiny by courts at all levels, vagrancy statutes were considered to be self-evidently legitimate, giving the police the near-absolute discretion to detain and arrest anyone perceived as suspicious, dissolute, disorderly, threatening, immoral, or otherwise out of place.

This outlook changed quickly in the 1960s as these previously inviolate laws were subjected to ongoing legal challenges, culminating in Papachristou v. Jacksonville (1972), a case that concerned two white women and two black men arrested as vagrants while driving together in a car. Papachristou concluded with the Supreme Court striking...

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