Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 (1972)

In Papachristou, the Supreme Court struck down a city ordinance against vagrancy. Justice William O. Douglas’s opinion is memorable as a paean to noncomformity and for its defense of liberty at the most basic level: the citizen’s freedom to walk the streets and to live the life he or she chooses.

As a matter of law, Papachristou held that under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantee, the Jacksonville ordinance was impermissibly vague. The Court said that the measure, which targeted ‘‘rogues,’’ ‘‘vagabonds,’’ and ‘‘loafers,’’was unconstitutional because it failed ‘‘to give a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice that his contemplated conduct is forbidden’’ and ‘‘because it encourages arbitrary and erratic arrests and convictions.’’

Justice Douglas, himself an inverate rambler and proud noncomformist, observed that the behavior the ordinance sought to criminalize, such as ‘‘nightwalking’’ and loitering, can be perfectly innocent. ‘‘Persons ‘wandering or strolling’ from place to place,’’ he wrote, ‘‘have been extolled by Walt Whitman and Vachel Lindsay.’’ Such activities ‘‘are historically part of the amenities of life.... They are not mentioned in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights. These unwritten amenities have been in part responsible for giving our people the feeling of independence and self-confidence, the feeling of creativity.... They have encouraged lives of high spirits rather than hushed, suffocating silence.’’

Laws must not arbitrarily target disfavored groups, Douglas cautioned, because ‘‘[t]he rule of law, evenly applied to minorities as well as majorities, to the poor as well as the rich, is the great mucilage that holds society together.’’

STEVE SANDERS

See also Vagrancy Laws; Vagueness and Overbreadth in Criminal Statutes

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