|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.'
"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."
"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)]
"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)]
"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)]
"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".
"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."
"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."
“…if doubt exists as to the construction of a taxing statute, the doubt should be resolved in favor of the taxpayer..."
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)).
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.)
"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)."
"...It is almost impossible to arrive with certainty at just what the
statutory law of the United States now is..."
[ 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)."
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