Void for Vagueness Doctrine

Void for Vagueness Doctrine

A doctrine derived from the due process clauses of the fifth and fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution that requires criminal laws to be drafted in language that is clear enough for the average person to comprehend.

If a person of ordinary intelligence cannot determine what persons are regulated, what conduct is prohibited, or what punishment may be imposed under a particular law, then the law will be deemed unconstitutionally vague. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that no one may be required at peril of life, liberty, or property to speculate as to the meaning of a penal law. Everyone is entitled to know what the government commands or forbids.

The void for vagueness doctrine advances four underlying policies. First, the doctrine encourages the government to clearly distinguish conduct that is lawful from that which is unlawful. Under the Due Process Clauses, individuals must be given adequate notice of their legal obligations so they can govern their behavior accordingly. When individuals are left uncertain by the wording of an imprecise statute, the law becomes a standardless trap for the unwary.

For example, Vagrancy is a crime that is frequently regulated by lawmakers despite difficulties that have been encountered in defining it. Vagrancy laws are often drafted in such a way as to encompass ordinarily innocent activity. In one case the Supreme Court struck down an ordinance that prohibited "loafing," "strolling," or "wandering around from place to place" because such activity comprises an innocuous part of nearly everyone's life (Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 92 S. Ct. 839, 31 L. Ed. 2d 110 [1972]). The Court concluded that the ordinance did not provide society with adequate warning as to what type of conduct might be subject to prosecution.

Second, the void for vagueness doctrine curbs the Arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of criminal statutes. Penal laws must be understood not only by those persons who are required to obey them but by those persons who are charged with the duty of enforcing them. Statutes that do not carefully outline detailed procedures by which police officers may perform an investigation, conduct a search, or make an arrest confer wide discretion upon each officer to act as he or she sees fit. Precisely worded statutes are intended to confine an officer's activities to the letter of the law.

Third, the void for vagueness doctrine discourages judges from attempting to apply sloppily worded laws. Like the rest of society, judges often labor without success when interpreting poorly worded legislation. In particular cases, courts may attempt to narrowly construe a vague statute so that it applies only to a finite set of circumstances. For example, some courts will permit prosecution under a vague law if the government can demonstrate that the defendant acted with a Specific Intent to commit an offense, which means that the defendant must have acted wilfully, knowingly, or deliberately. By reading a specific intent requirement into a vaguely worded law, courts attempt to insulate innocent behavior from criminal sanction.

However, such judicial constructions are not always possible. Ultimately, a confusing law that cannot be cured by a narrow judicial interpretation will not be submitted to a jury for consideration but will be struck down as an unconstitutional violation of the Due Process Clauses.

A fourth reason for the void for vagueness doctrine is to avoid encroachment on First Amendment freedoms, such as Freedom of Speech and religion. Because vague laws cause uncertainty in the minds of average citizens, some citizens will inevitably decline to take risky behavior that might land them in jail. When the vague provisions of a state or federal statute deter citizens from engaging in certain political or religious discourse, courts will apply heightened scrutiny to ensure that protected expression is not suppressed. For example, a law that prohibits "sacrilegious" speech would simultaneously chill the freedoms of expression and religion in violation of the void for vagueness doctrine (Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 72 S. Ct. 777, 96 L. Ed. 1098 [1952]).

Although courts scrutinize a vague law that touches on a fundamental freedom, in all other cases the void for vagueness doctrine does not typically require mathematical precision on the part of legislators. Laws that regulate the economy are scrutinized less closely than laws that regulate individual behavior, and laws that impose civil or administrative penalties may be drafted with less clarity than laws imposing criminal sanctions.


Chilling Effect Doctrine; Due Process of Law; Fifth Amendment; Fourteenth Amendment.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
violate the void for vagueness doctrine as discussed further in the next
"PNP legal should offer help to all LGUs with anti-loitering ordinances to review the substance of their ordinances to find out if these are not susceptible to a constitutional challenge based on the void for vagueness doctrine," Pimentel, a lawyer, said.
established criteria of the "void for vagueness doctrine."
Koh, Crimmigration and the Void for Vagueness Doctrine, 2016
(47) Alternatively, the Court should have analyzed the language of statute under the void for vagueness doctrine. (48) A statute is unconstitutionally vague if there is no warning or notice of those who may be within the scope of the statute or the conduct that statute criminalizes.
"It's certainly like the void for vagueness doctrine that you no longer have any clear voice or signals on where the line ends and begins," she pointed out.
Revisions to the Void for Vagueness Doctrine, 8 CARDOZO PUB.
When people of reasonable intelligence disagree over local norms, constitutional claims involving the void for vagueness doctrine seem likely.
Lockwood, Defining Indefiniteness: Suggested Revisions to the Void for Vagueness Doctrine, 8 CARDOZO PUB.
(31.) See NOWAK & ROTUNDA supra note 27, at 950 (stating that "the void for vagueness doctrine applies to all criminal laws, not merely those that regulate speech or other fundamental constitutional rights.").
"That is the first objection: The void for vagueness doctrine. The language of the law that has been passed upon by the SC is so vague that it becomes illegal since it is a very significant constraint on the preferred freedom of all in the entire Bill of Rights - freedom of expression or freedom of speech," she stressed.
"So for these two reasons, the void for vagueness doctrine and overbreadth doctrine, I humbly submit that the Supreme Court ruling, on this particular provision, is erroneous and I call on all netizens to magnify all our efforts and to speed it up as soon as possible so that we can either file a motion for reconsideration with respect to this particular libel provision or we can speed it up here in the Senate on that new law that I have filed from crowdsourcing," Santiago said.