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What Happens When a Criminal Law is Too Vague to Understand?

Posted by William Bly | Sep 19, 2016 | 0 Comments

Before a criminal law is made or modified, it goes through a long and supposedly arduous process in the Maine State Legislature that is meant to ensure that the end result is the best and most precise law that can possibly be made. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many criminal laws hit the books that are controversial or simply poorly drafted, resulting in countless unfair outcomes to innocent people.

One of the ways that a criminal law can be unfair is if it is so poorly written that it's difficult to tell what it makes illegal. This can be especially dangerous because history has shown us that using vague criminal laws is a favorite tactic of governments that want to exert more control over its citizens. It is to prevent this possibility and avoid unjust prosecutions that the courts have decided that these kinds of laws violate the Constitution.

The Void for Vagueness Doctrine

In theory, criminal laws are created for a handful of purposes: They're meant to deter people from committing bad acts, punishing them for committing the ones that they do, and keeping offenders away from the rest of society so they can learn to be better people.

Not one of these purposes, however, is furthered by a criminal statute that is so vague that it's difficult to tell what it outlaws. Instead, all that it does is make people suffer at the hands of the state for reasons they only understand, after the fact, if they can understand it, at all.

Because there are no benefits and plenty of hardships from prosecuting a vague criminal law, courts have created the void for vagueness rule. Based on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which requires that the state provide due process to criminal suspects, courts have ruled that criminal statutes that are overly vague – that do not adequately inform a reasonable person what he or she has to do, in order the break the law – are unconstitutional, and therefore void.

An example of how a criminal statute can be void for vagueness is a California state law that required people to provide “reliable and credible” identification whenever they were asked to by police. However, the statute did not specify what was “reliable and credible,” and so police officers were given wide discretion as to whether the ID was enough, or whether they could make an arrest under the statute. By giving so much discretion to police, it prevented anyone from knowing what identification was sufficient to comply with the law, making the law unconstitutionally vague.

Maine Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly

All criminal laws have some “wiggle room” in their language, making it important to have a criminal defense attorney who understands how to make that flexibility work to your advantage. When there is too much, though, it can be impossible to understand what is legal, and what is not. Unfortunately, laws like this hit the books entirely too often, putting innocent people in difficult positions, through no fault of their own.

If you have been charged with a crime in the state of Maine, contact the law office of criminal defense attorney William T. Bly online or at (207) 571-8146.

About the Author

William Bly

William T. Bly, Esq. is a graduate of Rutgers College where he majored in Political Science with a minor in U.S. History. Attorney Bly attended and graduated the University of Maine School of Law. During his time in law school, Attorney Bly focused on criminal defense.


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