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Law School Case Brief

Bowers v. State - 283 Md. 115, 389 A.2d 341 (1978)


The cardinal requirement is that a penal statute be sufficiently explicit to inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties. A statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates due process of law. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee that no one may be required at peril of life, liberty, or property to speculate as to the meaning of penal statutes. In assessing the constitutionality of a statute assailed as overly uncertain either in respect of the acts it purports to prohibit or the persons to whom it applies, courts typically consider two basic criteria. The first is the fair notice principle. A fair warning should be given to the world in language that it will understand. No one should be subject to criminal responsibility for conduct which he could not reasonably understand to be prohibited. A statute may also be stricken for vagueness if it fails to provide legally fixed standards and adequate guidelines for police, judicial officers, triers of fact, and others whose obligation it is to enforce, apply, and administer the penal laws. Only where a statute is so broad as to be susceptible to irrational and selective patterns of enforcement will it be held unconstitutional. 


Md. Ann. Code art. 27, § 35A (1973) prohibited child abuse, which it defined as any physical injury sustained by a child as a result of "cruel or inhumane" treatment or as a result of "malicious acts" by a parent "or any other person who has permanent or temporary care or custody" of the child. Defendant Hobart Bowers was convicted of violating § 35A by beating his stepdaughter on her back, neck, arm, and legs with a belt for skipping school. Bowers attacked § 35A by asserting that the terms "cruel or inhumane" and "temporary care or custody" were so vague and indefinite that the statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment. 


Was Md. Ann. Code art. 27, § 35A (1973) vague and indefinite such that it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?




The appellate court held that in applying a strict specificity standard and in determining whether the statute gave a fair warning of the prohibited conduct and adequate guidelines for law enforcement, the statute was sufficiently definite to withstand constitutional attack. The terms "cruel or inhumane" and "malicious" had acquired a relatively widely accepted connotation in the common law, and the use of such phraseology in the child abuse statute did not render it constitutionally infirm. The terms "temporary care or custody" were also sufficiently definite.

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