Criminal laws that are vague and uncertain in scope, meaning, or application violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Lanzetta v. New Jersey, the Supreme Court considered whether a state law was void for vagueness. In 1937, seeking to crack down on criminal gangs of that era, the State of New Jersey enacted a law establishing the following crime: ‘‘Any person not engaged in any lawful occupation, known to be a member of any gang consisting of two or more persons, who has been convicted at least three times of being a disorderly person, or who has been convicted of any crime in this or in any other State, is declared to be a gangster . . . .’’ Lanzetta and others were convicted under this law and declared to be gangsters. They were sentenced to five to ten years of hard labor in prison. The state courts upheld their convictions.
The Supreme Court reversed the convictions, explaining that no one may be required at the peril of life, liberty, or property to speculate as to the meaning of penal statutes. A statute creating an offense must be sufficiently explicit to inform those subject to the law what conduct will render them subject to penalties. A statute defined in terms so vague that people of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates due process of law.
The Supreme Court observed that the statute did not define the term ‘‘gang.’’ Meanings in dictionaries and other sources were varied and numerous, and the term was not defined elsewhere in the law. The state courts relied on the prior state case of State v. Gaynor, which used dictionary definitions and descriptions to ascertain the legislative meaning of the terms ‘‘gang’’ (that is, a company of persons acting together for some purposes, usually criminal, or a company of persons who go about together or who act in concert, mainly for a criminal purpose) and ‘‘gangster’’ (that is, a member of a gang of roughs, hireling criminals, thieves, or the like). But the Gaynor decision was decided after the defendants’ trial and did not provide a general statutory interpretation.
Moreover, the state courts’ descriptions and illustrations were insufficient to constitute definitions for the terms. The adopted dictionary definitions of ‘‘gang’’ and ‘‘gangster’’ only extended to people acting together for some purpose ‘‘usually criminal’’ or ‘‘mainly for criminal purposes,’’ meaning some gangs could have legitimate purposes such as groups of workers engaged in lawful activities. Also, the statute did not declare all members to be gangsters, only those with prior convictions as defined. The provision ‘‘known to be a member’’ was also ambiguous as to whether actual membership was required. It also failed to indicate what constituted membership or how one might join a ‘‘gang.’’ The law, condemning no specific act or omission, was unconstitutionally vague.
Lanzetta was a seminal case stating the constitutional rule requiring that criminal statutes must be sufficiently certain so people have notice of what the law commands or forbids.
VINCENT L. RABAGO
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Due Process; Due Process of Law (V and XIV); Fourteenth Amendment; Rights of the Accused