Course: Introduction / Criminal Law
Void for Vagueness is the doctrine by which appellate courts strike down laws that are not clear in what exactly they prohibit.
The doctrine of void for vagueness is a fundamental principle of due process in criminal law. It requires that laws be drafted in a manner that clearly defines what conduct is prohibited and what is permitted. If a law is too vague, it can be struck down as unconstitutional, as it fails to give people fair notice of what behavior is prohibited, which in turn violates their due process rights.
The Supreme Court has established a two-part test to determine whether a law is void for vagueness. The first part of the test requires that a law be written with enough specificity so that people of ordinary intelligence can understand what conduct is prohibited. If a law is written in a way that reasonable people could not understand, it can be deemed unconstitutionally vague.
The second part of the test requires that a law provide sufficient guidance to law enforcement officials so that they do not engage in arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement. A vague law gives too much discretion to law enforcement officers to interpret it as they see fit, which can result in unequal or arbitrary enforcement.
The void for vagueness doctrine has been used to strike down laws in a wide range of contexts, including obscenity laws, laws that restrict free speech, and laws that criminalize certain types of conduct. For example, in Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville (1972), the Supreme Court invalidated a city ordinance that prohibited “rogues and vagabonds” from loitering in public places. The Court found that the ordinance was too vague, as it failed to define what conduct constituted being a “rogue” or a “vagabond” and could be applied in a discriminatory or arbitrary manner.
In City of Chicago v. Morales (1999), the Supreme Court struck down a Chicago ordinance that made it a crime for a person to loiter in a public place with no apparent purpose. The Court found that the law was too vague, as it did not define what constituted “loitering” and gave too much discretion to police officers to enforce it arbitrarily.
The void for vagueness doctrine has also been applied in the context of criminal sentencing. In United States v. Booker (2005), the Supreme Court found that the federal sentencing guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury trial because they allowed judges to make findings of fact that increased the defendant’s sentence without requiring a jury to find those facts beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court held that the guidelines were too vague, as they gave judges too much discretion to make findings of fact that increased a defendant’s sentence.
The void for vagueness doctrine is an essential safeguard against arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of the law. By requiring that laws be written with enough specificity to give people fair notice of what conduct is prohibited and by limiting the discretion of law enforcement officials to apply the law arbitrarily, the doctrine protects the due process rights of all citizens.
On This Site
[ Glossary ]
Last Modified: 04/09/2023