(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
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
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
Alabama, 310 U.S. 88 (1940): State law which completely
prohibited picketing was void.
De George, 341 U.S. 223 (1951): This case has a
short explanation of the development of the
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).
South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229 (1963): Breach of peace
convictions vacated. See also Cox
Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536 (1965).
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
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.
Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1965): State laws concerning
“subversive organization” were void.
City of Euclid, 402 U.S. 544 (1971): Loitering ordinance
was unconstitutionally vague.
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.
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.
Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972): Breach of peace law was
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.”
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.
Franklin, 439 U.S. 379 (1979): Pennsylvania Abortion
Control Act was vague.
v. Flipside, Hoffman
Estates, 455 U.S. 489 (1982): Drug law was not vague.
Lawson, 461 U.S. 352 (1983): Loitering ordinance was
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.
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
ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997): Indecency and the Net.
Morales, 527 U.S. 41 (1999): Loitering ordinance was
II. LOWER FEDERAL
Soglin v. Kauffman,
418 F.2d 163 (7th Cir. 1969): University disciplinary
proceedings based upon misconduct was void.
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
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
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
Belle Maer Harbor v. Charter
Township of Harrison, 170 F.3d 553 (6th Cir.
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.
Project v. U.S. DoJ and Ashcroft, 352 F.3d 382 (9th Cir.
2003): Terrorism law’s phrase “material support” was vague.
City of Las Vegas, 333 F.3d 1092 (9th Cir. 2003): Fremont
Street is a public forum and ordinance was unconstitutional.
re Newbern, 53 Cal.2d 786, 3 Cal.Rptr. 364, 350 P.2d
116 (1960): Criminal law applicable to “common drunk” was void.
v. Reiner, 194 Cal. App. 3d 470, 239 Cal. Rptr. 549
(1987): Verbal abuse statute was vague.
County of Sonoma, 98 Cal.App.4th 744 (2002): Dress
code was void for vagueness and facially overbroad.
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.”
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
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).
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.
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
v. Jihan, 127 Ill. 2d 379, 537 N.E.2d 751 (1989):
The term “midwifery,” was
of Harvard v. Gaut, 277 Ill. App. 3d 1, 660 NE.2d
259 (IL.App. 2 Dist. 1996): Gang colors ordinance was void.
Lee, 345 Ill. App.3d 782 (2004): Drug and loitering law
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.
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
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.”
Fayette County Food & Bev. Assn. v. Lexington-Fayette
Urban County Govt., 131 S.W.3d 745 (2004): Smoking
paraphernalia law was vague.
Muschkat, 706 So. 2d 429 (La. 1998): Loitering law was
v. Miller, 857 So.2d 423 (La. 2003): “contraband”.
State v. Boomer,
250 Mich. App. 534, 655 N.W.2d 255 (2002): Law against swearing
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.
Ed. of the City of St. Louis v. State of Missouri, 47
SW.3d 366 (Mo. 2001): Election process for board members was
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
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.
re T.R., 80 P.3d 1276 (Nev. 2003): Phrase
“rehabilitated to the satisfaction of the court”
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
v. Phillips, 985 F. Supp. 419 (S. D. N. Y. 1997):
Aggravated harassment law void.
XXXV. NORTH CAROLINA
v. Municipal Court of Oklahoma City, 487 P.2d 974,
976 (Okl.Cr. 1971): Loitering ordinance is unconstitutionally
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.”
XLI. RHODE ISLAND
XLII. SOUTH CAROLINA
XLIII. SOUTH DAKOTA
Margraves v. State,
996 S.W.2d 290, 302 (Tx.Cr.App. 2000): Court held that the
official misconduct statute was unconstitutionally void for
Coggin v. State, 123 S.W.3d 82 (Tex.App. 2003): Shooting
v. State, 61 P.3d 1038 (Utah 2002): Criminal libel
law was overbroad.
v. Carter, 21 Va. App. 150, 462 S.E.2d 582 (1995):
state law regarding child endangerment was unconstitutionally
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
Hilt, 99 Wn.2d 452, 662 P.2d 52 (1983): Phrase “lawful
excuse” is vague.
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.
Sumner v. Walsh, 148 Wn.2d 490 (2003): Curfew void.
v. State, 116 Wash.App. 864, 68 P.3d 1114 (2003):
Civil commitment law was unconstitutional.
L. WEST VIRGINIA
v. Stevenson, 236 Wis.2d 86, 613 N.W.2d 90, 2000 WI 71
(Wis. 2000): Wis. “Peeping tom” law is void.