Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 255 (1957)

2012-07-23 14:18:39

Lambert v. California is one of the Supreme Court’s most fundamental decisions in support of civil liberties, but also one of its most poorly understood. Virginia Lambert had been living continuously in California for seven and one-half years when she was arrested and charged under an ordinance that made it unlawful for a person with a felony conviction to be in Los Angeles for more than five days without registering with the police. The trial judge instructed the jury that Lambert’s complete ignorance of the registration requirement was no defense, and she was convicted. The Supreme overturned her conviction in ringing language: ‘‘A law which punished conduct which would not be blameworthy in the average member of the community would be too severe for that community to bear.’’ Id. at 229 (quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Common Law 50 (1981)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Most observers have agreed that the Court rightly overturned a profoundly unjust conviction. The puzzle, though, which the opinion did not answer, is why Lambert’s conviction was unconstitutional. Was it because she did not realize what she did was wrong? Was it that, rather than doing something, she was being punished for failing to do something? Was it that her conduct was too ‘‘innocent?’’ Each of these principles has its defenders, but they share a common problem: taken seriously, each of these principles would eliminate a large number of crimes and conflict with a substantial body of law. For this reason, the dissent charged that Lambert would turn into ‘‘a derelict on the waters of the law.’’ Id. at 232 (Frankfurter, J., dissenting).

One possible answer, a novel one but one consistent with other Supreme Court cases, is that the statute in Lambert essentially punished a protected constitutional right—in this case the right to travel. In this view, assuming it would be unconstitutional for Los Angeles to bar convicted felons from the city entirely, it cannot make a crime simply by adding an element (failing to register), unless the defendant has some culpability (such as purpose or knowledge) with regard to that additional element.


See also Due Process; Ex Post Facto; Right to Travel