No loitering: Where you can(’t?) stand on the Downtown Mall

Wells Fargo took down the sign that said "no loitering" outside the bank on the Downtown Mall, and legal experts say the bank can't enforce such an edict.
Photo: Cara Salpini Wells Fargo took down the sign that said “no loitering” outside the bank on the Downtown Mall, and legal experts say the bank can’t enforce such an edict. Photo: Cara Salpini

On any given day Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall plays host to a crowd of visitors, locals and out-of-towners alike. The pedestrian walking street fills up with families going out to dinner, students doing homework in coffee shops and friends shopping together. With the Downtown Mall acting as a center for social activity, a “no loitering” sign on Wells Fargo Bank raises questions about the legality of preventing passersby from standing in a public place.

“It is not illegal to loiter,” legal expert Jeff Fogel says. “The Supreme Court has decided that a number of times.”

Fogel, who successfully sued the city for its ban on panhandling within 50 feet of a mall crossing, explains that loitering is only illegal if someone is loitering for an illegal purpose, such as prostitution or drug selling. He adds that for someone to be fined, the bank would have to prove that that person was loitering for an illegal purpose.

“The definition of loitering is, after all, just idly standing around,” Fogel says. “You can’t prevent someone from doing that.”

In the context of the Downtown Mall, where people are frequently standing around, a “no loitering” sign seems especially out of place. Kadiera Bennett, a manager at the Wells Fargo on the mall, explains that it was not her choice to put up the sign.

Kristy Marshall, Wells Fargo’s corporate communications spokesperson for Virginia, explains that having a “no loitering” sign is a corporate policy for all of their locations.

Marshall adds, “We normally don’t allow loitering around our stores just because it’s a bank and we have customers coming in with money and we want it to be a secure environment.”

While Wells Fargo’s policy may be aimed at ensuring the safety of customers, Lieutenant Steve Upman says, “There’s no loitering statute in Charlottesville or in Virginia.”  Upman, public information officer for the Charlottesville Police Department, acknowledges that there is a city code preventing solicitation within 15 feet of an ATM, but says there’s no similar code for loitering.

Fogel agrees that the bank most likely put the sign up to deter people from hanging around the area, but he points out that the bank cannot legally enforce a “no loitering” sign.

“They don’t want people hanging around their building?” Fogel says. “Tough luck. This is America. You can’t tell people where to stand. There’s no way they can enforce that. They can constitutionally prohibit loitering for something like prostitution. But you cannot be prevented from loitering. The bank can’t prohibit that. They don’t write the laws.”

Following C-VILLE’s inquiry, Wells Fargo has removed its sign.

This article was updated at 4:11 p.m. October 7.