Void for Vagueness

A void for vagueness statute is one that does not fairly put a person on notice of prohibited versus permissible behavior. Subjecting an individual to criminal liability on the basis of a vague law may violate his or her right to due process; neither individuals nor the courts should have to guess at exactly what behavior the government is proscribing.

Certain categories of criminal statutes are frequently challenged pursuant to the void for vagueness doctrine. Chief among these are vagrancy statutes and statutes that purport to regulate speech (such as laws criminalizing hate speech). Laws that are subjective, either in language or in the type of behavior to be regulated, open themselves up to such a challenge.

When statutes are challenged as unconstitutionally vague, courts may find them entirely void. This occurs frequently when the vague law purports to regulate constitutionally protected conduct, such as freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. In other circumstances, courts may find that a vague law is only unconstitutional as applied to the individual challenging the law. Such a situation occurs when the law proscribes identifiable criminal behavior as well as arguably permissible behavior. Of course, courts often find that statutes challenged under the void for vagueness doctrine are actually constitutional, either in whole or as applied. Over the years, the Supreme Court has developed this test: whether people of ordinary intelligence are on notice that their conduct is prohibited by law.

ANN B. CHING

References and Further Reading

  • Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964).
  • Coates v. City of Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611 (1971).
  • Lanzetta v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451 (1939).
  • Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997).

See also Defense, Right to Present; Due Process; Due Process of Law (V and XIV); Fighting Words and Free Speech; Fourteenth Amendment; Gang Ordinances; Hate Crimes; Hate Speech; Obscenity; Overbreadth Doctrine; Substantive Due Process; Vagrancy Laws; Vagueness Doctrine; Vagueness and Overbreadth in Criminal Statutes

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