Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352 (1983)

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Terry v. Ohio 392 U.S. 1 (1968) permits police to stop and frisk persons on less-than-probable cause, so long as the police have at least ‘‘reasonable suspicion’’ that a crime may have occurred. A number of states have statutes that also purport to allow police to stop or arrest persons who appear to be loitering or wandering about without purpose. Between March 1975 and January 1977, Edward Lawson, a black businessman crowned with dreadlocks, was held and questioned by San Diego police at least fifteen times. Mr. Lawson enjoyed walking late through exclusive residential neighborhoods at night, a hobby that eventually resulted in two prosecutions, and a misdemeanor conviction for violation of California Penal Code } 647(e), a statute that required persons who loiter or wander the California streets to provide ‘‘credible and reliable’’ identification and to ‘‘account for their presence.’’ A number of states have similar statues, sometimes referred to as ‘‘stop and identify’’ statutes. Lawson filed a civil action seeking a declaratory judgment that 647(e) was unconstitutionally vague.

The United States Supreme Court held the California statute was void for vagueness because it ‘‘vests virtually complete discretion in the hands of the police to determine whether the suspect has satisfied the statute and must be permitted to go on his way in the absence of probable cause to arrest.’’ In particular, the statute failed to specify what was meant by the requirement that a suspect provide ‘‘credible and reliable’’ identification and failed to give ‘‘fair and adequate notice’’ of the type of conduct prohibited. The statute allowed excessive police discretion in determining what constituted reasonable suspicion as to whether the suspect fulfilled the identification request.


References and Further Reading

  • Hallock, Alan D., Stop-and-Identify Statutes After Kolender v. Lawson: Exploring the Forth and Fifth Amendment Issues, Iowa Law Review 69 (1984): 1057–1080.
  • Silvestrini, Leslie V. F., Kolender v. Lawson: Fourth and Inches on Fourth Amendment Issues and Supreme Court Punts, Journal of Contemporary Law 10 (1984): 239–253.
  • Stormer, Dan, and Paul Bernstein, The Impact of Kolender v. Lawson on Law Enforcement and Minority Groups, Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly 12 (1984): 71: 105–125.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)

See also Stop and Frisk; Void-for-Vagueness