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Law School Case Brief

State v. White - 204 Conn. 410, 528 A.2d 811 (1987)

Rule:

Due process demands that a statute be sufficiently definite and precise to enable a person to know what is permitted and what is prohibited. That the terms of a penal statute 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. 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. Thus, laws must give a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited so that he may act accordingly. Also, if arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is to be prevented, laws must provide adequately delineated standards for those who apply them.

Facts:

Several occupants of a residential building owned by defendant Gordon L. White died in a fire in the building. White subsequently was charged in a substitute information with three counts of criminally negligent homicide in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-58 and 53a-3 (14), and with three counts of failing to provide a smoke detector in violation of Connecticut state fire safety code §§ 11-1.8.1 and 11-3.3.3.1, and General Statutes §§ 29-292 and 29-295. After a jury trial in Connecticut state court, White was found guilty on all six counts and was sentenced to a total effective term of one year, execution suspended, with three years' probation; he was also fined $ 4500. White appealed, arguing, inter alia, that: (1) that the state fire safety code and statutes charging him with failing to provide smoke detectors were unconstitutionally vague; (2) that the state fire safety code provisions exceeded the scope of authority conferred by the code's enabling statute, and; (3) that the failure to install smoke detectors could not provide a sufficient basis for a conviction of criminally negligent homicide.

Issue:

Were the state fire safety code provisions and applicable statutes unconstitutionally vague?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of Connecticut set aside the judgment of conviction and remanded the case to the trial court with an order to grant White's motion for acquittal on all counts. The court ruled that the state fire safety code provisions and applicable statutes were not unconstitutionally vague because they enabled a person of ordinary intelligence to know what was permitted and what was prohibited. The court further ruled, however, that § 29-292 directed that the fire code provide regulations for smoke detectors in buildings designed for two or more families for which a building permit had been issued on or after Oct. 1, 1976. To the extent that fire safety code § 11-1.8.1 regulated beyond that legislative mandate, it exceeded the scope of its statutory authority. Finally, the court noted that liability based on criminal negligence presupposed a duty to act or refrain from acting. The court ruled that White had no duty to install smoke detectors in his building because no building permit was issued for the building on or after Oct. 1, 1976.

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