3 minute read

Void for Vagueness Doctrine

A doctrine derived from the DUE PROCESS CLAUSES of the FIFTH and FOURTEENTH AMENDMENTS to the U.S. Constitution that requires criminal laws to be drafted in language that is clear enough for the average person to comprehend.

If a person of ordinary intelligence cannot determine what persons are regulated, what conduct is prohibited, or what punishment may be imposed under a particular law, then the law will be deemed unconstitutionally vague. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that no one may be required at peril of life, liberty, or property to speculate as to the meaning of a penal law. Everyone is entitled to know what the government commands or forbids.

The void for vagueness doctrine advances four underlying policies. First, the doctrine encourages the government to clearly distinguish conduct that is lawful from that which is unlawful. Under the Due Process Clauses, individuals must be given adequate notice of their legal obligations so they can govern their behavior accordingly. When individuals are left uncertain by the wording of an imprecise statute, the law becomes a standardless trap for the unwary.

For example, VAGRANCY is a crime that is frequently regulated by lawmakers despite difficulties that have been encountered in defining it. Vagrancy laws are often drafted in such a way as to encompass ordinarily innocent activity. In one case the Supreme Court struck down an ordinance that prohibited "loafing," "strolling," or "wandering around from place to place" because such activity comprises an innocuous part of nearly everyone's life (Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 92 S. Ct. 839, 31 L. Ed. 2d 110 [1972]). The Court concluded that the ordinance did not provide society with adequate warning as to what type of conduct might be subject to prosecution.

Second, the void for vagueness doctrine curbs the ARBITRARY and discriminatory enforcement of criminal statutes. Penal laws must be understood not only by those persons who are required to obey them but by those persons who are charged with the duty of enforcing them. Statutes that do not carefully outline detailed procedures by which police officers may perform an investigation, conduct a search, or make an arrest confer wide discretion upon each officer to act as he or she sees fit. Precisely worded statutes are intended to confine an officer's activities to the letter of the law.

Third, the void for vagueness doctrine discourages judges from attempting to apply sloppily worded laws. Like the rest of society, judges often labor without success when interpreting poorly worded legislation. In particular cases, courts may attempt to narrowly construe a vague statute so that it applies only to a finite set of circumstances. For example, some courts will permit prosecution under a vague law if the government can demonstrate that the defendant acted with a SPECIFIC INTENT to commit an offense, which means that the defendant must have acted wilfully, knowingly, or deliberately. By reading a specific intent requirement into a vaguely worded law, courts attempt to insulate innocent behavior from criminal sanction.

However, such judicial constructions are not always possible. Ultimately, a confusing law that cannot be cured by a narrow judicial interpretation will not be submitted to a jury for consideration but will be struck down as an unconstitutional violation of the Due Process Clauses.

A fourth reason for the void for vagueness doctrine is to avoid encroachment on FIRST AMENDMENT freedoms, such as FREEDOM OF SPEECH and religion. Because vague laws cause uncertainty in the minds of average citizens, some citizens will inevitably decline to take risky behavior that might land them in jail. When the vague provisions of a state or federal statute deter citizens from engaging in certain political or religious discourse, courts will apply heightened scrutiny to ensure that protected expression is not suppressed. For example, a law that prohibits "sacrilegious" speech would simultaneously chill the freedoms of expression and religion in violation of the void for vagueness doctrine (Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 72 S. Ct. 777, 96 L. Ed. 1098 [1952]).

Although courts scrutinize a vague law that touches on a fundamental freedom, in all other cases the void for vagueness doctrine does not typically require mathematical precision on the part of legislators. Laws that regulate the economy are scrutinized less closely than laws that regulate individual behavior, and laws that impose civil or administrative penalties may be drafted with less clarity than laws imposing criminal sanctions.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Vest to Water Rights