Challenges That Come With Vague, Overbroad or That Require Extensive


ChallengesThat Come With Vague, Overbroad or That Require ExtensiveInterpretations

ChallengesThat Come With Vague, Overbroad or That Require ExtensiveInterpretations

Whenlaws are being made, they are expected to have clear provisions. Thestatues should not be overbroad, or require extensiveinterpretations. The reason for these is that any ordinary personshould not be expected to guess what the makers of the law intendedit to mean.

Anycriminal statute that lacks specificity or definiteness is commonlysaid to be void for vagueness. Such a statute fails to give theguidance that it should give. Defendants would not get the adviceneeded to know the nature of the offence. The courts would also be ina quagmire in trying the accused persons.

Sucha statute lacks to enumerate what is either required or prohibited.It can be challenged for being unconstitutionally vague. The rule oflenity states that such a statute should be applied in favour of thedefendant. The defendant in this case will argue that the law isunconstitutional as applied to the facts of the case on which theyare charged.

Whena litigant challenges a statute for vagueness and lack of clarity inmeaning and application, the court’s finding in this regard mayresult in the invalidation of that statute. The doctrine ofvagueness requires that all laws must clearly inform the people onwhat they should do to avoid being found criminally liable based onthe said law. If a law is vague, it may even end up suppressing theprotected expression.

Thedoctrine of overbreadth focuses on the target of a law. Even if a lawis clear on the face of it may be challenged if it indiscriminatelycovers both protected and unprotected expression. In Coatesv. Cincinnati (1971),a law was struck down for being vague and overbroad. This lawprohibited three or more people from assembling in a street cornerand doing any activity that would be annoying to the passers-by. Suchlaw, it was held, could suppress the protected rights and ittherefore should not stand.

Inapplying this doctrine, the courts must rule on case to case basisand not in anticipating future events. The reason for this is thatthe court may rule that a statute is invalid because it feels thatthe statute may attack a certain protected expression. This attackmay never happen. A person should only apply to the court on his owncase and not because they think that it would be unconstitutional ifapplied to others. This was held in the case of Virginiav. Hicks (2003).

Thechallenge there is that the drafters of a statute would not beexpected to anticipate manners in which a law would be applied. Ifevery law was to be truck down for being overbroad or vague as itreaches to protected speech, it would mean that the legislators areleft powerless in dealing with matters that would be nuisance to thepublic, affecting its welfare and safety. In Broadrickv. Oklahoma (1973),the court stated that in order for a law to be held to be invalid onits face, the overbreadth should be both real and substantial. Thisshould be after the plain meaning is applied to that statute.

InWintersv. New York 333 U.S. 507, 515- 16 (1948),thecourt held that vagueness in a statute may either be in regard to thepersons that the statute purports to address, or in regard to thetest that the court is supposed to apply to ascertain the criminalliability of an accused.

Astatute may be vague in relation to a particular defendant or theentire statute may be so vague to that it threatens theconstitutionally protected rights. In the latter case, the statutemay be pronounced wholly unconstitutional. For example, the court inPapachristouv. City of Jacksonvilleheld a statute to be facially valid as it lacked to give fair notice,lacked specific intent to commit a crime, it encouraged arbitraryarrests and convictions and it criminalized activities that incurrent times are innocent.

Asstated above, a statute may be held to be unconstitutional only inreference to a particular defendant. This could be the case where astatute may be applied to either the innocent conduct or theunprotected conduct, but the good brought by it outweighs the generalharm that such a statute causes. In Palmerv. City of Eucid, 402 U.S. 544 (1971),the defendant had been arrested after dropping a passenger and thentalking into a two-way radio. He was found to be engaging in aconduct that would not reasonably be anticipated to fit thedefinition of “withoutany visible or lawful business.”The statute under which he had been charged had a proviso thatsuspicious persons were to be punished. In this case, the court heldthat this was void only in application to that particular defendant.

Thejudiciary is the arm of government mandated with the interpretationof laws. Legislators have tried in the past to prevent this. However,this is a very important role so as to ensure that justice is done toall. If a litigant argues that a certain statute is vague, overbroador that it requires extensive interpretation, the court should lookinto both the real and substantial application. This will beessential in dealing with the challenges posed by the threedoctrines.


Schmalleger,F., Hall, D. E., &amp Dolatowski, J. J. (2010). Criminallaw today(4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Learning.