Johnson and the Vagueness Doctrine

By: Rikin Shah Research & Writing Specialist
Federal Public Defender
Southern District of Texas

 

THE VAGUENESS DOCTRINE

 

The Fifth Amendment provides that “[n]o person shall ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The Government violates this guarantee by taking away someone’s life, liberty, or property under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement. Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 357–358 (1983). The prohibition of vagueness in criminal statutes “is a well-recognized requirement, consonant alike with ordinary notions of fair play and the settled rules of law,” and a statute that flouts it “violates the first essential of due process.” Connally v. General Constr. Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391 (1926). These principles apply not only to statutes defining elements of crimes, but also to statutes fixing sentences. United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 123 (1979) (emphasis added).

 

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