Kolender v. Lawson

461 U.S. 352, 103 S. Ct. 1855 (1983)



Statutory limitations on individual freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution are examined for substantive authority and content as well as for definiteness or certainty of expression. The void-for-vagueness doctrine requires that a penal statute define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Although the doctrine focuses both on actual notice to citizens and arbitrary enforcement, the more important aspect of the vagueness doctrine is not actual notice, but the requirement that a legislature establish minimal guidelines to govern law enforcement. Where the legislature fails to provide such minimal guidelines, a criminal statute may permit a standardless sweep that allows policemen, prosecutors, and juries to pursue their personal predilections.


The arrestee had been arrested on approximately 15 occasions and convicted once of violating Cal. Penal Code § 647(e) (1970), which required persons who loitered or wandered the streets to provide a credible and reliable identification and to account for their presence, when requested by a peace officer under circumstances that would justify a Terry stop. The lower courts concluded that the statute was unconstitutional because it contained a vague enforcement standard that was susceptible to arbitrary enforcement and failed to give fair and adequate notice of the type of conduct prohibited.


Is the requirement of credible and reliable identification vague as to render the statute unconstitutional?




On appeal, the Court held that the statute was unconstitutionally vague, within the meaning of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because it failed to clarify what was contemplated by the requirement that a suspect provide a credible and reliable identification and because it vested complete discretion in the hands of the police to determine whether the suspect had satisfied the statute and was therefore free to go in the absence of probable cause to arrest. The Court further held that the statute implicated consideration of the constitutional right to freedom of movement.

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