CITES BY TOPIC:  Void for Vagueness Doctrine

Fourteenth Amendment Annotations: Void for Vagueness

Connally vs. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385 (1926)

That the terms of a penal statute creating a new offense must be sufficiently explicit to inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties is a well- recognized requirement, consonant alike with ordinary notions of fair play and the settled rules of law; and a statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates the first essential of due process of law. International Harvester Co. v. Kentucky, 234 U.S. 216, 221 , 34 S. Ct. 853; Collins v. Kentucky, 234 U.S. 634, 638 , 34 S. Ct. 924


[269 U.S. 385, 393]   ... The dividing line between what is lawful and unlawful cannot be left to conjecture. The citizen cannot be held to answer charges based upon penal statutes whose mandates are so uncertain that they will reasonably admit of different constructions. A criminal statute cannot rest upon an uncertain foundation. The crime, and the elements constituting it, must be so clearly expressed that the ordinary person can intelligently choose, in advance, what course it is lawful for him to pursue. Penal statutes prohibiting the doing of certain things, and providing a punishment for their violation, should not admit of such a double meaning that the citizen may act upon the one conception of its requirements and the courts upon another.'

[Connally vs. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385 (1926)]

Gibbons v. Ogden, 27 U.S. 1

"As men whose intentions require no concealment, generally employ the words which most directly and aptly express the ideas they intend to convey:       the enlightened patriots who framed our constitution and the people who adopted it must be understood to have employed the words in their natural sense, and to have intended what they have said."

[Gibbons v. Ogden, 27 U.S. 1]

Rector, Etc., Of Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U.S. 457; 12 S.Ct. 511 (1892):

"All laws should receive a sensible construction.  General terms should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or an absurd consequence.  It will always be presumed that the legislature intended exceptions to its language which would avoid results of this character.  The reason of the law in such cases should prevail over its letter.

[Rector, Etc., Of Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U.S. 457; 12 S.Ct. 511 (1892)]

Winters v. People of State of New York, 333 U.S. 507; 68 S.Ct. 665 (1948):

"Men of common intelligence cannot be required to guess at the meaning of penal enactment.

"In determining whether penal statute is invalid for uncertainty, courts must do their best to determine whether vagueness is of such a character that men of common intelligence must guess at its meaning.

"Where a statute is so vague as to make criminal an innocent act, a conviction under it cannot be sustained." 

[Winters v. People of State of New York, 333 U.S. 507; 68 S.Ct. 665 (1948)]

Giaccio v. State of Pennsylvania, 382 U.S. 399; 86 S.Ct. 518 (1966):

"Law fails to meet requirements of due process clause if it is so vague and standardless that it leaves public uncertain as to conduct it prohibits or leaves judges and jurors free to decide, without any legally fixed standards, what is prohibited and what is not in each particular case." 

[Giaccio v. State of Pennsylvania, 382 U.S. 399; 86 S.Ct. 518 (1966)]

Gould v. Gould, 245 US., 151 (1917):

"In the interpretation of statutes levying taxes, it is THE ESTABLISHED RULE NOT TO EXTEND their provisions, by implication, BEYOND THE CLEAR IMPORT OF THE LANGUAGE USED, OR TO ENLARGE their operations SO AS TO EMBRACE MATTERS NOT SPECIFICALLY POINTED OUT".

[Gould v. Gould, 245 US., 151 (1917)]

Benziger v. U.S., 192 U.S. 38 (1904):

"This provision of the statute should be liberally construed in favor of the importer, and if there were any fair doubt as to the true construction of the provision in question, the courts should resolve the doubt in his favor. American Net & Twine Co. v. Worthington, 141 U.S. 468 , 35 L. ed. 821, 12 Sup. Ct. Rep. 55; United States v. Wigglesworth, 2 Story, 369, Fed. Cas. No. 16,690; Rice v. United States, 4 C. C. A. 104, 10 U. S. App. 670, 53 Fed. 910."

[Benziger v. U.S., 192 U.S. 38 (1904)]

PDF  U.S. v. De Cadena, 105 F.Supp. 202, 204 (1952)

"The essential purpose of the "void for vagueness doctrine" with respect to interpretation of a criminal statute, is to warn individuals of the criminal consequences of their conduct. ...  Criminal statutes which fail to give due notice that an act has been made criminal before it is done are unconstitutional deprivations of due process of law."

[U.S. v. De Cadena, 105 F.Supp. 202, 204 (1952)]

Hassett v. Welch., 303 US 303, pp. 314 - 315, 82 L Ed 858. (1938)

“…if doubt exists as to the construction of a taxing statute, the doubt should be resolved in favor of the taxpayer..." 

[Hassett v. Welch., 303 US 303, pp. 314 - 315, 82 L Ed 858. (1938)]

For additional cases like that above, see:

Where the construction of a tax law is doubtful, the doubt is to be resolved in favor of whom upon which the tax is sought to be laid. (See Spreckles Sugar Refining v. McClain, 192 U.S. 397, 416 (1904); Gould v. Gould, 245 U.S. 151, 153 (1917); Smietanka v. First Trust & Savings Bank, 257 U.S. 602, 606 (1922); Lucas v. Alexander, 279 U.S. 573, 577 (1929); Crooks v. Harrelson, 282 U.S. 55 (1930); Burnet v. Niagra Falls Brewing Co., 282 U.S. 648, 654 (1931); Miller v. Standard Nut Margarine Co., 284 U.S. 498, 508 (1932); Gregory v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 465, 469 (1935); Hassett v. Welch, 303 U.S. 303, 314 (1938); U.S. v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 123 (1978); Security Bank of Minnesota v. CIA, 994 F.2d 432, 436 (CA8 1993)).

Sewell v. Georgia, 435 U.S. 982 (1978)

As we said in Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108 (1972):

"It is a basic principle of due process that an enactment [435 U.S. 982 , 986]   is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. Vague laws offend several important values. First, because we assume that man is free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct, we insist that laws give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning. Second, if arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is to be prevented, laws must provide explicit standards for those who apply them. A vague law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application." (Footnotes omitted.)

See al  Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 (1972); Cline v. Frink Dairy Co., 274 U.S. 445, 47 S. Ct. 681 (1927); Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385 (1926).

[Sewell v. Georgia, 435 U.S. 982 (1978)]

Karlan v. City of Cincinatti, 416 U.S. 924 (1974)

"These cases all involve convictions under ordinances and statutes which punish the mere utterance of words variously described as 'abusive,' 'vulgar,' 'insulting,' 'profane,' 'indecent,' 'boisterous,' and the like. 1 The provisions are challenged as being unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. The 'void for vagueness' doctrine is, of course, a due process concept implementing principles of fair warning and non-discriminatory enforcement. Vague laws may trap those who desire to be law-abiding by not providing fair notice of what is prohibited. Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 162 (1972); United States v. Harriss, 347 U.S. 612, 617 ( 1954). They also provide opportunity for arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement since those [416 U.S. 924 , 925]   who apply the laws have no clear and explicit standards to guide them. Coates v. Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611, 614 ( 1971); Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, 382 U.S. 87 , 90-91, 15 L. Ed.2d 176 (1965). Further, when a vague statute "abut[s] upon sensitive areas of First Amendment freedoms,' it 'operates to inhibit the exercise of [those] freedoms.' Uncertain meanings inevitably lead citizens to 'steer far wider of the unlawful zone . . . than if the boundaries of the forbidden areas were clearly marked." Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 109 (1972), quoting Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 372 (1964), and Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 526 (1958)."

"Overbreadth, on the other hand, 'offends the constitutional principle that 'a governmental purpose to control or prevent activities constitutionally subject to state regulation may not be achieved by means which sweep unnecessarily broadly and thereby invade the area of protected freedoms." Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 250 (1967), quoting NAACP v. Alabama, 377 U.S. 288, 307 (1964). A vague statute may be overbroad if its uncertain boundaries leave open the possibility of punishment for protected conduct and thus lead citizens to avoid such protected activity in order to steer clear of the uncertain proscriptions. Grayned v. City of Rockford supra, 408 U.S. at 109; Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479, 486 (1965). A statute is also overbroad, however, if, even though it is clear and precise, it prohibits constitutionally protected conduct. Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 378 U.S. 500 , 508-509 (1964); Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479, 488 (1960)."

[Karlan v. City of Cincinatti, 416 U.S. 924 (1974)]

House Report 781, 1919

"...It is almost impossible to arrive with certainty at just what the statutory law of the United States now is..."
[House Report 781, 1919]

Federalist Paper #62: James Madison

The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uniformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the FEW, not for the MANY.

In another point of view, great injury results from an unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements. What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed? What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will not render him a victim to an inconstant government? In a word, no great improvement or laudable enterprise can go forward which requires the auspices of a steady system of national policy.

But the most deplorable effect of all is that diminution of attachment and reverence which steals into the hearts of the people, towards a political system which betrays so many marks of infirmity, and disappoints so many of their flattering hopes. No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable, without possessing a certain portion of order and stability.

[Federalist Paper #62: James Madison]

City of Mesquite v. Alladin's Castle, Inc., 455 U.S. 283 (1982):

" Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108 (emphasis [455 U.S. 283, 290]   added) *fn12...

[ Footnote 12 ] The Court of Appeals summarized the relevant authorities as follows: "A law is void for vagueness if persons `of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application . . . .' Smith v. Goguen, 415 U.S. 566, 572 n. 8, quoting Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391 . See generally Note, The Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine in the Supreme Court, 109 U. Pa. L. Rev. 67 (1960). The offense to due process lies in both the nature and consequences of vagueness. First, vague laws do not give individuals fair notice of the conduct proscribed. Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 162 . Accord Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108 & n. 3. Second, vague laws do not limit the exercise of discretion by law enforcement officials; thus they engender the possibility of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. at 108-09 & n. 4; Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. at 168-70. Third, vague laws defeat the intrinsic promise of, and frustrate the essence of, a constitutional regime. We remain `a government of laws, and not of men,' Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch.) 137, 163, only so long as our laws remain clear." 630 F.2d, at 1037 (citations abbreviated)."

[City of Mesquite v. Alladin's Castle, Inc., 455 U.S. 283 (1982)]