Well-functioning societies have adopted moral values, standards and behaviors that are acceptable to the public. Actions or crimes that do not conform to these standards, often referred to as “public-order crimes,” can be considered harmful or disruptive to the community.

How does a public-order crime differ from other crimes?

Public-order crimes are often referred to as victimless crimes because, unlike other illegal actions, they often involve two consenting adults or a lack of a complaining participant. For example, while it’s clear that there’s a victim if someone is murdered, a public-order crime (such as prostitution) generally involves two consenting adults, whereby it can be argued that neither participant is harmed. However, many argue that such crimes are significantly detrimental to society, families and individuals.

The Common Kinds of Public-Order Crimes

  • Prostitution is the exchange of sexual activity for some type of payment, including money, goods and services. Prostitution is currently only legal in eight counties in the State of Nevada.
  • Gambling includes any game or activity that the participant plays with the goal of winning money. Such games include bingo, casino games, poker, private sporting events and lotteries. Gambling laws vary by state and by city. For example, in Alabama, it is legal to gamble in the cities of Montgomery, Wetumpka and Atmore. Other cities within the state, however, have outlawed gambling. In other states, such as Texas, there may be state-sanctioned gambling (i.e., a state lottery), but other private gambling enterprises are illegal.
  • Drug use refers to the ingestion of any type of illegal or legal drugs. While states allow the use of over-the-counter medications and prescription medications, other non-prescription drugs are usually illegal. However, in recent years, public crime laws for certain drugs, such as marijuana, have been updated. For example, seven states and the District of Columbia have expanded the legalized use of marijuana for recreational purposes.
  • Public intoxication can be charged when a person appears in public while under the influence of alcohol or drugs to such a degree that they could endanger themselves or others.
  • Begging or panhandling is the practice of asking others—generally in public—for money or other gifts (i.e., cigarettes, food or drinks). Note that while some cities allow panhandling, other jurisdictions have made it a crime to give donations to the homeless.
  • Vagrancy can include the act of roaming around various areas without evidence of financial support. Vagrancy laws can include the criminalization of acts such as homelessness, loitering, prostitution and sleeping outside. Vagrancy laws have historically been difficult to enforce.

The Classification of Public-Order Crimes Under the Law

As mentioned above, public-order crimes are often viewed as victimless crimes. With that in mind, most public-order crimes are considered minor crimes, which means that most first-time offenders will generally be charged with a misdemeanor. Penalties for a misdemeanor can include low fines and penalties, or short jail stays. However, more serious public-order crimes or multiple offenses might be charged as a felony. Penalties for a felony can include high fines and over a year in jail.

Additionally, some public-order crimes may turn out not to be victimless; for example, what may seem like simply prostitution might actually be linked to the global sex trafficking of persons who have been kidnapped and/or sold. Prostitution may involve large criminal organizations who force children and women to work in the sex industry.

For this reason, many police departments across the United States take certain public-order crimes very seriously, and have formed specific police squads—referred to as vice squads—that work to enforce laws related to gambling, pornography, prostitution, and the illegal use of liquor and narcotics.

The Evolution of Public-Order Laws

While public-order laws still exist, there is a continuing debate about what activities should be regarded as illegal. Americans generally agree that certain actions should be prohibited to maintain order and social cohesion, and decrease the likelihood that more serious crimes will be committed.

However, others argue that some public-order laws are antiquated and that the enforcement of these laws interferes with the liberty of citizens. More importantly, critics argue that the government should not be involved in enforcing morality.

It’s important to note that policies and the prosecution of public-order crimes have changed significantly over the last century. In fact, many actions that were previously considered to be public-order crimes have been decriminalized; for example, adultery, fornication, homosexuality and abortion are no longer considered criminal acts. Other acts such as prostitution, gambling and marijuana use have been legalized in some states or jurisdictions.