That the terms of a penal statute creating a new offense must be sufficiently
explicit to inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their
part will render them liable to its penalties is a well- recognized
requirement, consonant alike with ordinary notions of fair play and
the settled rules of law; and a statute which either forbids or requires
the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence
must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application
violates the first essential of due process of law. International Harvester
Co. v. Kentucky,
234 U.S. 216, 221 , 34 S. Ct. 853; Collins v. Kentucky,
234 U.S. 634, 638 , 34 S. Ct. 924
[269 U.S. 385, 393] ... The dividing line between
what is lawful and unlawful cannot be left to conjecture. The citizen
cannot be held to answer charges based upon penal statutes whose mandates
are so uncertain that they will reasonably admit of different constructions.
A criminal statute cannot rest upon an uncertain foundation. The crime,
and the elements constituting it, must be so clearly expressed that
the ordinary person can intelligently choose, in advance, what course
it is lawful for him to pursue. Penal statutes prohibiting the doing
of certain things, and providing a punishment for their violation, should
not admit of such a double meaning that the citizen may act upon the
one conception of its requirements and the courts upon another.'
vs. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385 (1926)]
"As men whose intentions require no concealment, generally employ the
words which most directly and aptly express the ideas they intend to
convey: the enlightened patriots
who framed our constitution and the people who adopted it must be understood
to have employed the words in their natural sense, and to have intended
what they have said."
[Gibbons v. Ogden, 27 U.S. 1]
"All laws should receive a sensible construction. General terms
should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice,
oppression, or an absurd consequence. It will always be presumed
that the legislature intended exceptions to its language which would
avoid results of this character. The reason of the law in such
cases should prevail over its letter."
[Rector, Etc., Of Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U.S. 457; 12 S.Ct. 511 (1892)]
"Men of common intelligence cannot be required to guess at the meaning
of penal enactment.
"In determining whether penal statute is invalid for uncertainty, courts
must do their best to determine whether vagueness is of such a character
that men of common intelligence must guess at its meaning.
"Where a statute is so vague as to make criminal an innocent act, a
conviction under it cannot be sustained."
[Winters v. People of State of New York, 333 U.S. 507; 68 S.Ct. 665 (1948)]
"Law fails to meet requirements of due process clause if it is so vague
and standardless that it leaves public uncertain as to conduct it prohibits
or leaves judges and jurors free to decide, without any legally fixed
standards, what is prohibited and what is not in each particular case."
[Giaccio v. State of Pennsylvania, 382 U.S. 399; 86 S.Ct. 518 (1966)]
"In the interpretation of statutes levying taxes, it is THE ESTABLISHED
RULE NOT TO EXTEND their provisions, by implication, BEYOND THE CLEAR
IMPORT OF THE LANGUAGE USED, OR TO ENLARGE their operations SO AS TO
EMBRACE MATTERS NOT SPECIFICALLY POINTED OUT".
[Gould v. Gould, 245 US., 151 (1917)]
"This provision of the statute should be liberally construed in favor
of the importer, and if there were any fair doubt as to the true construction
of the provision in question, the courts should resolve the doubt in
his favor. American Net & Twine Co. v. Worthington,
141 U.S. 468 , 35 L. ed. 821, 12 Sup. Ct. Rep. 55; United States
v. Wigglesworth, 2 Story, 369, Fed. Cas. No. 16,690; Rice v. United
States, 4 C. C. A. 104, 10 U. S. App. 670, 53 Fed. 910."
[Benziger v. U.S., 192 U.S. 38 (1904)]
"The essential purpose of the "void for vagueness doctrine" with
respect to interpretation of a criminal statute, is to warn individuals
of the criminal consequences of their conduct. ... 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
v. De Cadena, 105 F.Supp. 202, 204 (1952)]
“…if doubt exists as to the construction of a taxing statute, the doubt
should be resolved in favor
of the taxpayer..."
[Hassett v. Welch., 303 US 303, pp. 314 - 315, 82 L Ed 858. (1938)]
For additional cases like that
Where the construction of a tax law is doubtful, the doubt is to be
resolved in favor of whom upon which the tax is sought to be laid. (See
Spreckles Sugar Refining v. McClain, 192 U.S. 397, 416 (1904);
Gould v. Gould, 245 U.S. 151, 153 (1917); Smietanka v. First
Trust & Savings Bank, 257 U.S. 602, 606 (1922); Lucas v. Alexander,
279 U.S. 573, 577 (1929); Crooks v. Harrelson, 282 U.S. 55
(1930); Burnet v. Niagra Falls Brewing Co., 282 U.S. 648, 654
(1931); Miller v. Standard Nut Margarine Co., 284 U.S. 498, 508
(1932); Gregory v. Helvering, 293 U.S. 465, 469 (1935); Hassett
v. Welch, 303 U.S. 303, 314 (1938); U.S. v. Batchelder, 442
U.S. 114, 123 (1978); Security Bank of Minnesota v. CIA, 994
F.2d 432, 436 (CA8 1993)).
As we said in Grayned v. City of Rockford,
408 U.S. 104, 108 (1972):
"It is a basic principle of due process that an enactment
[435 U.S. 982 , 986] is void for vagueness
if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. Vague laws offend several
important values. First, because we assume that 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 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." (Footnotes omitted.)
See al Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville,
405 U.S. 156 (1972); Cline v. Frink Dairy Co.,
274 U.S. 445, 47 S. Ct. 681 (1927); Connally v. General Construction
269 U.S. 385 (1926).
[Sewell v. Georgia, 435 U.S. 982 (1978)]
"These cases all involve convictions under ordinances and statutes which
punish the mere utterance of words variously described as 'abusive,'
'vulgar,' 'insulting,' 'profane,' 'indecent,' 'boisterous,' and the
like. 1 The provisions
are challenged as being unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. The
'void for vagueness' doctrine is, of course, a due process concept implementing
principles of fair warning and non-discriminatory enforcement. Vague
laws may trap those who desire to be law-abiding by not providing fair
notice of what is prohibited. Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville,
405 U.S. 156, 162 (1972); United States v. Harriss,
347 U.S. 612, 617 ( 1954). They also provide opportunity for arbitrary
and discriminatory enforcement since those [416 U.S. 924
, 925] who apply the laws have no clear and explicit standards
to guide them. Coates v. Cincinnati,
402 U.S. 611, 614 ( 1971); Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham,
382 U.S. 87 , 90-91, 15 L. Ed.2d 176 (1965). Further, when a vague
statute "abut[s] upon sensitive areas of First Amendment freedoms,'
it 'operates to inhibit the exercise of [those] freedoms.' Uncertain
meanings inevitably lead citizens to 'steer far wider of the unlawful
zone . . . than if the boundaries of the forbidden areas were clearly
marked." Grayned v. City of Rockford,
408 U.S. 104, 109 (1972), quoting Baggett v. Bullitt,
377 U.S. 360, 372 (1964), and Speiser v. Randall,
357 U.S. 513, 526 (1958)."
"Overbreadth, on the other hand, 'offends the constitutional principle
that 'a governmental purpose to control or prevent activities constitutionally
subject to state regulation may not be achieved by means which sweep
unnecessarily broadly and thereby invade the area of protected freedoms."
Zwickler v. Koota,
389 U.S. 241, 250 (1967), quoting NAACP v. Alabama,
377 U.S. 288, 307 (1964). A vague statute may be overbroad if its
uncertain boundaries leave open the possibility of punishment for protected
conduct and thus lead citizens to avoid such protected activity in order
to steer clear of the uncertain proscriptions. Grayned v. City of Rockford
supra, 408 U.S. at 109; Dombrowski v. Pfister,
380 U.S. 479, 486 (1965). A statute is also overbroad, however,
if, even though it is clear and precise, it prohibits constitutionally
protected conduct. Aptheker v. Secretary of State,
378 U.S. 500 , 508-509 (1964); Shelton v. Tucker,
364 U.S. 479, 488 (1960)."
[Karlan v. City of Cincinatti, 416 U.S. 924 (1974)]
"...It is almost impossible to arrive with certainty at just what the
statutory law of the United States now is..."
[House Report 781, 1919]
The internal effects of a mutable
policy are still more calamitous.
It poisons the blessing
of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that
the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so
voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they
cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they
are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man,
who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.
Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule,
which is little known, and less fixed?
Another effect of public
instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious,
the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uniformed
mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or
revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species
of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change,
and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves,
but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens.
This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth
that laws are made for the FEW, not for the MANY.
In another point of
view, great injury results from an unstable government. The want
of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking,
the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing
arrangements. What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in
any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans
may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed?
What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement
given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can
have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will
not render him a victim to an inconstant government? In a word,
no great improvement or laudable enterprise can go forward which
requires the auspices of a steady system of national policy.
But the most deplorable effect of
all is that diminution of attachment and reverence which steals
into the hearts of the people, towards a political system which
betrays so many marks of infirmity, and disappoints so many of their
flattering hopes. No government, any more than an individual, will
long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly
respectable, without possessing a certain portion of order and stability.
Paper #62: James Madison]
" Grayned v. City of Rockford,
408 U.S. 104, 108 (emphasis [455 U.S. 283, 290]
[ Footnote 12 ] The
Court of Appeals summarized the relevant authorities as follows: "A
law is void for vagueness if persons `of common intelligence must necessarily
guess at its meaning and differ as to its application . . . .' Smith
415 U.S. 566, 572 n. 8, quoting Connally v. General Construction
269 U.S. 385, 391 . See generally Note, The Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine
in the Supreme Court, 109 U. Pa. L. Rev. 67 (1960). The offense to due
process lies in both the nature and consequences of vagueness. First,
vague laws do not give individuals fair notice of the conduct proscribed.
Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville,
405 U.S. 156, 162 . Accord Grayned v. City of Rockford,
408 U.S. 104, 108 & n. 3. Second, vague laws do not limit the exercise
of discretion by law enforcement officials; thus they engender the possibility
of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Grayned v. City of Rockford,
408 U.S. at 108-09 & n. 4; Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405
U.S. at 168-70. Third, vague laws defeat the intrinsic promise of, and
frustrate the essence of, a constitutional regime. We remain `a government
of laws, and not of men,' Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch.) 137,
163, only so long as our laws remain clear." 630 F.2d, at 1037 (citations
[City of Mesquite v. Alladin's Castle, Inc., 455 U.S. 283 (1982)]