Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The Supreme Court has invalidated both federal and state criminal statutes that lack sufficient definiteness or specificity as “void for vagueness.” Such legislation “may run afoul of the Due Process Clause because it fails to give adequate guidance to those who would be law-abiding, to advise defendants of the nature of the offense with which they are charged, or to guide courts in trying those who are accused.” 1 A statute may also be unconstitutionally vague because the statute is worded in a standardless way that invites arbitrary enforcement or so broadly as to threaten constitutionally protected activity.
With respect to state and local actions, the Supreme Court has, for instance, voided for vagueness a state criminal law that subjects a “gangster” to fine or imprisonment, where neither common law nor the statute gave the words “gang” or “gangster” definite meaning;2 an ordinance that required police to disperse all persons in the company of “criminal street gang members” while in a public place with “no apparent purpose” ;3 and an ordinance that punished, among others, “persons wandering or strolling around from place without any lawful purpose or object.” 4
- Musser v. Utah, 333 U.S. 95, 97 (1948).
- Lanzetta v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451 (1939).
- City of Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41 (1999).
- Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 (1972). For more discussion of the void for vagueness doctrine, see Amdt5.8.1 Overview of Void for Vagueness Doctrine.