VAGUENESS
(Updated May 2, 2006)
(new links Aug. 18, 2017)


    This file briefly summarizes and links cases posted on the Net which concern the "void for vagueness" legal doctrine. The cases are listed by jurisdictions and as more posted decisions are found, they will be summarized and linked here.

I. SUPREME COURT

Connally v. General Const. Co
., 269 U.S. 385 (1926): Wage law was vague.  

Cline v. Frink Dairy Co., 274 U.S. 445 (1927): The Court found the Colorado Antitrust Act void because it failed to provide an ascertainable standard of guilt.

Lanzetta  v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451 (1939): A New Jersey law provided as follows: "Any person not engaged in any lawful occupation, known to be a member of any gang consisting of two or more persons, who has been convicted at least three times of being a disorderly person, or who has been convicted of any crime, in this or in any other State, is declared to be a gangster." Held void.

Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88 (1940): State law which completely prohibited picketing was void. 

Jordan  v. De George, 341  U.S. 223 (1951): This case has a short explanation of the development  of the  doctrine:

The essential purpose of the "void for vagueness" doctrine is to warn individuals of the criminal consequences of their conduct. Williams v. United States, 341 U.S. 97, decided April 23, 1951; Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91, 103-104 (1945). This Court has repeatedly stated that criminal statutes which fail to give due notice that an act has been made criminal before it is done are unconstitutional deprivations of due process of law. Lanzetta v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451 (1939); United States v. Cohen Grocery Co., 255 U.S. 81 (1921).

Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963): Breach of peace convictions vacated.  See also Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536 (1965).

Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964): Oath invalid that required teacher to promote respect for the flag and the institutions of the United States. Reason: could apply to criticism of government.

This class action was brought by members of the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Washington for a judgment declaring unconstitutional 1931 and 1955 state statutes requiring the taking of oaths, one for teachers and the other for all state employees, including teachers, as a condition of employment. The 1931 oath requires teachers to swear, by precept and example, to promote respect for the flag and the institutions of the United States and the State of Washington, reverence for law and order and undivided allegiance to the Government of the United States. The 1955 oath for state employees, which incorporates provisions of the state Subversive Activities Act, requires the affiant to swear that he is not a "subversive person": that he does not commit, or advise, teach, abet or advocate another to commit or aid in the commission of any act intended to overthrow or alter, or assist in the overthrow or alteration, of the constitutional form of government by revolution, force or violence. "Subversive organization" and "foreign subversive organization" are defined in similar terms and the Communist Party is declared a subversive organization.

Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1965): State laws concerning “subversive organization" were void.

Palmer v. City of Euclid, 402 U.S. 544 (1971): Loitering ordinance was unconstitutionally vague.

 Coates v. City of Cincinnati, 402 U.S. 611 (1971): Cincinnati ordinance making it a criminal offense for "three or more persons to assemble . . . on any of the sidewalks . . . and there conduct themselves in a manner annoying to persons passing by," which has not been narrowed by any construction of the Ohio Supreme Court, held violative on its face of the due process standard of vagueness and the constitutional right of free assembly and association.

Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156 (1972): A vagrancy ordinance, under which petitioners were convicted, is void for vagueness, in that it "fails to give a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice that his contemplated conduct is forbidden by the statute," it encourages arbitrary and erratic arrests and convictions, it makes criminal activities that by modern standards are normally innocent, and it places almost unfettered discretion in the hands of the police.

Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972): Breach of peace law was overbroad.

Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108-09 (1972): law upheld banning noise or diversion which disturbs or tends to disturb the peace and good order of a school. Reason: state courts would apply only to actual or imminent interferences with peace or good order of the school.

"It is a basic principle of due process that an enactment is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. Vague laws offend several important values. First, because we assume that a man is free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct, we insist that laws give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing a fair warning. Second, if arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is to be prevented, laws must provide explicit standards for those who apply them. A vague law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application."

 Smith v. Goguen, 415 U.S. 566 (1974): The Court voided law making it a crime to publicly mutilate, trample upon, deface or treat contemptuously the flag of the United States. Reason: contemptuously was unclear, particularly when flag commonly used for ornate purposes.

Colautti v. Franklin, 439 U.S. 379 (1979): Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act was vague.

Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, 455 U.S. 489 (1982): Drug law was not vague.

Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352 (1983):  Loitering ordinance was vague.

Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987): Court invalidated statute making it an offense to interrupt a police officer in the performance of his or her duties. The Court said that a significant amount of verbal criticism directed a police officers is protected expression.

Bd. of Airport Comm. of City of Los Angeles v. Jews for Jesus, Inc., 482 U.S. 569 (1987): Court struck law banning any person from engaging in First Amendment activities in the Los Angeles International Airport. Court noted that the law prohibits even talking or reading, or the wearing of campaign buttons or symbolic clothing.

Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997): Indecency and the Net.

Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41 (1999): Loitering ordinance was unconstitutionally vague.

II. LOWER FEDERAL

Soglin v. Kauffman, 418 F.2d 163 (7th Cir. 1969): University disciplinary proceedings based upon misconduct was void.

Collins v. Smith, 578 F.2d 1197 (7th Cir. 1978): Ordinances prohibiting demonstrations by members of National Socialist Party were unconstitutional.

Sawyer v. Sandstrom, 615 F.2d 311 (5th Cir. 1980): Dade County loitering ordinance was void.

Leonardson v. City of East Lansing, 896 F.2d 190 (6th Cir. 1990): Police ordinance was void.

Springfield Armory v. City of Columbus, 29 F.3d 250 (6th Cir. 1994): Columbus banned named guns and "models by the same manufacturer with the same action design that have slight modifications or enhancements." The Sixth Circuit pointed out that guns varied widely in design, function and power; it was impossible to determine how much of a difference it took to make something not of "the same action design."

Kirkeby v. Furness, 52 F.3d 772 (8th Cir. 1995): Abortion protesters attacked and prevailed on issue that "Restricted Picketing Zone" was vague.

Women's Medical Prof. Corp. v. Voinovich, 130 F.3d 187 (6th Cir. 1997): State abortion law found unconstitutional.

Foti v. City of Menlo Park, 146 F.3d 629, 638 (9th Cir. 1998): Abortion protesters prevailed against overly broad ordinance.

Peoples Rights Organization, Inc. v. City of Columbus, 152 F.3d 522 (6th Cir. 1998): Assault weapons ban provisions held unconstitutional.

United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 1099 v. Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority, 163 F.3d 341 (6th Cir. 1998): Prohibition against union advertisements on buses found unconstitutional.

Belle Maer Harbor v. Charter Township of Harrison, 170 F.3d 553 (6th Cir. 1999).

United States v. Loy, 237 F.3d 251 (3rd Cir. 2001): A blanket prohibition on “pornography” is unclear and unconstitutionally vague.

Johnson v. City of Cincinnati, 310 F.3d 484 (6th Cir. 2002): Ordinance prohibiting travel by certain persons in parts of city void.

Humanitarian Law Project v. U.S. DoJ and Ashcroft, 352 F.3d 382 (9th Cir. 2003): Terrorism law’s phrase “material support” was vague. This decision is in PDF.

ACLU v. City of Las Vegas, 333 F.3d 1092 (9th Cir. 2003): Fremont Street is a public forum and ordinance was unconstitutional.

III. ALABAMA


IV. ALASKA


V. ARIZONA


VI. ARKANSAS

Shoemaker v. State of Arkansas, 343 Ark. 727, 38 S.W.3d 350 (Ark. 2001): The court held that “abusive language” statute was unconstitutional because a “fighting words” limitation would not be the only possible interpretation.

Ark. Tobacco Control Bd. v. Sitton, 166 S.W.3d 550 (Ark. 2004).

VII. CALIFORNIA

In re Newbern, 53 Cal.2d 786, 3 Cal.Rptr. 364, 350 P.2d 116 (1960): Criminal law applicable to "common drunk" was void.

Ketchens v. Reiner, 194 Cal. App. 3d 470, 239 Cal. Rptr. 549 (1987): Verbal abuse statute was vague.

Gatto v. County of Sonoma,  98 Cal.App.4th 744 (2002): Dress code was void for vagueness and facially overbroad.

VIII. COLORADO

Leonardo v. State, 728 P.2d 1252, 1256 (Colo. 1986): Court noted that "[s]uspicion does not rise to the level of belief or knowledge... It encompasses the apprehension of something without proof or upon little evidence."

IX. CONNECTICUT


X. DELAWARE


XI. FLORIDA

Lachs v. State, 366 So.2d 1223, 1226 (Fla.App. 1979): Court noted that "[m]ere suspicion is no better than random selection, sheer guesswork, or hunch, and has no objective justification."

Easy Way of Lee County, Inc., v. Lee County, 674 So. 2d 863 (Fla.App. 1996): Court found the language of a sound ordinance overly broad and vague when the conduct made illegal music played in such a way that it was "unreasonably loud, raucous, jarring, disturbing, or a nuisance to persons within the area of audibility." Id. at 867. The court reasoned that this standard "represents exactly such a `subjective standard, prohibiting a volume that any individual person "within the area of audibility" happens to find personally disturbing'."

Daley v. City of Sarasota, 752 So.2d 124 (Fla. 2d 2000).
 

XII. GEORGIA


XIII. HAWAII


XIV. IDAHO

State v. Bitt, 118 Idaho 584, 798 P.2d 43 (1990): Loitering ordinance was vague.

State v. Bonner, 61 P.3d 611 (Idaho App. 2002):  Sexual battery case.

XV. ILLINOIS

People v. Monroe, 515 N.E.2d 42, 45 (Ill. 1987): Illinois drug paraphernalia prohibition was void because it failed to afford fair notice of the prohibited conduct and it lent itself to arbitrary enforcement.

People v. Jihan, 127 Ill. 2d 379, 537 N.E.2d 751 (1989): The term "midwifery," was vague.

City of Harvard v. Gaut, 277 Ill. App. 3d 1, 660 NE.2d 259 (IL.App. 2 Dist. 1996): Gang colors ordinance was void.

People v. Lee, 345 Ill. App.3d 782 (2004): Drug and loitering law was vague.

XVI. INDIANA

Healthscript, Inc. v. State, 770 N.E.2d 810 (Ind. 2002): Medicaid fraud law was vague.

Vaughn v. State, 782 N.E.2d 417 (Ind.App. 2003): Phrase, “is or was living as if a spouse of the other person,” in domestic battery statute is vague. See also Fitzgerald v. State, 805 N.E.2d 857 (Ind.App. 2004).

Foster v. State, 813 N.E.2d 1236 (Ind.App. 2004): Phrase “sexually explicit materials” was vague.

XVII. IOWA



XVIII. KANSAS

State v. Bryan, 259 Kan. 143, 155, 910 P.2d 212 (1996): court found unconstitutional a portion of the stalking statute because it failed to apply any objective standard in defining the terms "alarms," "annoys," and "harass." The court was concerned that the statute did not provide any guidelines to be used to determine when a following became alarming, annoying, or harassing. 259 Kan. at 149. The court noted that conduct which annoys one person may not annoy another; therefore, without a "definition or an objective standard to measure the prohibited conduct" of the statute, it was held to be vague. 259 Kan. at 151.

Luna v. City of Ulysses, 28 Kan. App. 2d 413, 17 P.3d 940 (2000): "We conclude the loud noise ordinance of the City does not give fair warning to those potentially subject to its reach because there are no objective standards imparted. Loaded phrases and words in the ordinance 'unnecessarily loud,' 'excessive,' 'mentally annoying,' and 'disturbing' do not provide fair warning to an individual of prohibited conduct.

"The ordinance also provides that if the noise is disturbing to 'another person or persons,' then the individual responsible for the noise is in violation, regardless if the complainants have reasonable grounds to complain. As was true in Bryan, the absence of an objective standard subjects the defendant to the particular sensibilities of the complainant. The door is left open to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement of noisy speech, thus, potentially ensnaring constitutionally protected speech."

XIX. KENTUCKY

Lexington Fayette County Food & Bev. Assn. v. Lexington-Fayette Urban County Govt., 131 S.W.3d 745 (2004): Smoking paraphenalia law was vague.

XX. LOUISIANA

State v. Muschkat, 706 So. 2d 429 (La. 1998): Loitering law was void.

State v. Miller, 857 So.2d 423 (La. 2003): "contraband".

XXI. MAINE


XXII. MARYLAND


XXIII. MASSACHUSETTS


XXIV. MICHIGAN

State v. Boomer,  250 Mich. App. 534, 655 N.W.2d 255 (2002): Law against swearing held vague.

XXV. MINNESOTA


XXVI. MISSISSIPPI

Davis v. Mississippi, 806 So.2d 1098 (Miss. 2001): The Mississippi Supreme Court declared here the cruelty to animals statute to be unconstitutional on the grounds that it is too vague to be understood by ordinary persons because it does not require a guilty mind or bad motive as part of the offense.

XXVII. MISSOURI

Bd. of Ed. of the City of St. Louis v. State of Missouri, 47 SW.3d 366 (Mo. 2001): Election process for board members was vague.

XXVIII. MONTANA

State v. Stanko, 1998 MT 321, 292 Mont. 192, 974 P.2d 1132 (1998): Here, the Montana Supreme Court struck down for vagueness a traffic statute making it a violation to operate a motor vehicle at a speed “greater than is reasonable and proper under the conditions existing at the point of operation, taking into consideration the amount and character of traffic, condition of brakes, weight of vehicle, grade and width of highway, condition of surface, and freedom of obstruction to the view ahead.”

XXIX. NEBRASKA

According to Nebraska case law, the “void-for-vagueness doctrine” requires that a statute define a criminal offense with a sufficient amount of definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and the language it uses does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. State v. Hookstra, 10 Neb. App. 199, 630 N.W. 2d 469 (2001). The test for determining whether a statute is vague is whether it forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that persons of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and may differ as to its application. State v. Irons, 254 Neb. 18, 574 N.W.2d 144 (1998). In State v. Lynch, 223 Neb. 849, 394 N.W.2d 651 (1986), the Nebraska Supreme Court held that the dividing line between what is lawful and unlawful cannot be left to conjecture. The crime and elements constituting it must be so clearly expressed that an ordinary person can intelligently choose in advance what course is lawful for him to pursue. Lynch, 394 N.W.2d at 661.

XXX. NEVADA

In re T.R., 80 P.3d 1276 (Nev. 2003): Phrase "rehabilitated to the satisfaction of the court" was vague.

XXXI. NEW HAMPSHIRE


XXXII. NEW JERSEY

State v. Golin, 363 N.J.Super. 474, 833 A.2d 660 (App. Div. 2003): Public nuisance ordinance was void.

XXXIII. NEW MEXICO


XXXIV. NEW YORK

Schlager v. Phillips, 985 F. Supp. 419 (S. D. N. Y. 1997): Aggravated harassment law void.

XXXV. NORTH CAROLINA

Malloy v. Cooper 162 N.C.App. 504, 592 S.E.2d 17 (2002): pigeon shooting.

XXXVI. NORTH DAKOTA


XXXVII. OHIO

City of Columbus v. Thompson, 25 Ohio St.2d 26, 266 N.E.2d 571 (1971): The word “suspicious”.

Akron v. Rowland, 67 Ohio St.3d 374, 618 NE.2d 138 (1993): loitering; Akron v. Rasdan, 105 Ohio App.3d 164, 663 N.E.2d 947 (1995).

XXXIII. OKLAHOMA

Hayes v. Municipal Court of Oklahoma City, 487 P.2d 974, 976 (Okl.Cr. 1971): Loitering ordinance is unconstitutionally vague.

Switzer v. City of Tulsa, 1979 OK CR 73, 598 P.2d 247 (1979): Tulsa loitering ordinance was vague.

In Re: Initiative Petition No. 366, 2002 OK 21, 46 P.3d 123 (2002): “Very similar to Petition No. 366 is the classic example of an unconstitutionally vague statute: 'It shall be a crime to say anything in public unless the speech is protected by the first and fourteenth amendments.' Such a statute is patently vague and will deter constitutionally protected conduct. A vague statute's prohibitions become clear only after 'courts [have] proceeded on a case-by-case basis to separate out constitutional from unconstitutional areas of coverage.' Because of its vagueness, Petition No. 366 would force citizens to refrain from exercising their right to freedom of speech. Thus, Petition No. 366, if adopted, would unconstitutionally abridge article 2, section 7 of the Oklahoma Constitution.”

XXXIX. OREGON



XL. PENNSYLVANIA



XLI. RHODE ISLAND


XLII. SOUTH CAROLINA


XLIII. SOUTH DAKOTA


XLIV. TENNESSEE


XLV. TEXAS

Margraves v. State, 996 S.W.2d 290, 302 (Tx.Cr.App. 2000): Court held that the official misconduct statute was unconstitutionally void for vagueness.

Coggin v. State
, 123 S.W.3d 82 (Tex.App. 2003): Shooting "the bird."

XLVI. UTAH

I.M.L. v. State, 61 P.3d 1038 (Utah 2002):  Criminal libel law was overbroad.


XLVII. VERMONT



XLVIII. VIRGINIA

Commonwealth v. Carter, 21 Va. App. 150, 462 S.E.2d 582 (1995): state law regarding child endangerment was unconstitutionally vague.

XLIX. WASHINGTON


Seattle v. Rice, 93 Wn.2d 728, 731, 612 P.2d 792 (1980): The phrase "lawful order" were "not sufficiently specific to inform persons of reasonable understanding of what conduct is proscribed."  

State v. Hilt, 99 Wn.2d 452, 662 P.2d 52 (1983): Phrase "lawful excuse" is vague.

Spokane v. Fischer, 110 Wn.2d 541, 754 P.2d 1241 (1988): "A criminal prohibition against permitting a dog's frequent or habitual barking which 'disturbs or annoys' another person in the neighborhood is unconstitutionally vague insofar as it makes criminal liability dependent on the subjective determination of any person who hears the barking."

 
State v. Maxwell, 74 Wash.App. 688, 878 P.2d 1220 (1994): Helmet law.

City of Sumner v. Walsh, 148 Wn.2d 490 (2003): Curfew void.

Mays v. State, 116 Wash.App. 864, 68 P.3d 1114 (2003): Civil commitment law was unconstitutional.

L. WEST VIRGINIA


LI. WISCONSIN

State v. Stevenson, 236 Wis.2d 86, 613 N.W.2d 90, 2000 WI 71 (Wis. 2000): Wis. “Peeping tom” law is void.

LII. WYOMING