Principle of Legality
The requirement of previously defined conduct
The cases we are going to examine here deal with ensuring that we follow the standards set in previously defined statutes.
Commonwealth v. Mochan
Superior Court of Pennsylvania, 1955. 177 Pa.Super. 454, 110 A.2d 788.
Commonwealth is the prosecutor while Mochan is the defendant. The defendant lost in the trial court and appealed.
Can crimes be prosecuted and punished under the common law?
“Whatever openly outrages decency and is injurious to public morals is a misdemeanor at common law.”
The court holds that crimes are punishable under common law, the defendant is guilty of violating common law. Therefore, his judgement is affirmed.
Here, the defendant made several phone calls to a married woman, soliciting her and making several rude suggestive comments. Note, this was in the time where calls were handled by operators, so several others also heard these conversations.
The defendant was arrested, although there was no statute, and convicted of violating a common law misdemeanor. He objected and appealed.
Here, the court is asked to consider whether common law can be seen as good law to convict a person of a crime. They say that it is because the defendants actions are openly outrageous and injures the public morals. These are violations of common law. Therefore, he committed a misdemeanor of common law and is guilty of his crime.
The dissent argues that although the defendants actions are deplorable, the legislature should be the ones to establish a crime, not the courts through common law. This is because the defendant would need to know what the crime he is committing and the common law can be used as a “catch all” kind of practice.
Now, nearly all states have abandoned the practice of using common law to establish a crime.
The reason why the dissent is so important is because it outlines the principle of fair warning. There is a reason why we have statutes, and that reason is to give people fair warning that they might be committing a crime.
Keeler v. Superior Court
Supreme Court of California, 1970. 2 Cal.3d 619, 87 Cal.Rptr. 481, 470 P.2d 617.
Keeler is the defendant and the Superior Court is the prosecutor. Keeler applied for the case to be dropped and the issue went to the California Supreme Court.
Whether an unborn, viable, child is defined as a “human being” under Penal Code 187.
If an unborn child is defined as a human being and is killed, it can be considered murder. If an unborn child is not defined as a human being, it cannot be considered murder.
An unborn child is not considered a human being. There was no murder in this case.
Mr. and Mrs. Keeler had applied for divorce. Mrs. Keeler had starting living with another man and was pregnant with his child. Upon encountering each other, Mr. Keeler discovered her pregnancy and attacked Mrs. Keeler by driving his knee into her abdomen and hitting her several times across the face. She fainted and woke to paramedics. Upon examination, her unborn child was discovered to have sever damage and was stillborn. Prior to this incident, the child had shown signs of life. The doctors agreed that the child, if born then, would have been viable. Mr. Keeler faced with several charges but the issue of murder is now before this court.
The court first looks to see if the legislature intended section 187’s definition of human being to cover an unborn child. They look towards old law to follow the “born alive” rule. That is, if the child is born alive, then dies, it is murder. Otherwise, it was a misdemeanor. Thus, because the legislative intention was the born alive rule, and the child here was stillborn, there was no murder.
The court then turns to common law to see if they should adopt a new common law standard that interprets the child to be considered a human being. Here, they say that they can’t because doing so would be a violation of the legislative authority to create statutes (not the courts). Additionally, they say that to adopt a new standard new would violate Mr. Keeler’s due process of law because he would not have had notice that he committed a crime.
The dissent disagrees with each point. First, they state that the born alive rule is old and science has greatly progressed through time. Second, since the court looked at common law to come to the born alive conclusion, they should also be able to use common law to interpret section 187 accordingly. Third, Mr. Keeler should hardly be surprised that the infant would be considered a human being. Thus, he should be held accountable for the offense of murder.
The Values of Statutory Clarity
Now, we turn to ensuring that the words or statutes are clear. The purpose of doing so is to provide proper notice of a crime to potential offenders. Without the clarity, prosecution of a crime could possibly be considered a violation of due process. So, it’s important to get this right.
In Re Banks
Supreme Court of North Carolina, 1978. 295 N.C. 236, 244 S.E.2d 386.
Parties are unclear, but the defendant lost and appealed.
Is North Carolina’s Peeping Tom statute so unclear that it violates the Due Process clause?
A statute needs to be definitive and not over broad. However, if it is a close call, the courts will uphold that the statute is Constitutional.
Here, the statute is clear enough and not overly broad. Therefore, the statute is Constitutional.
Defendant was caught as a “peeping Tom and charged as such. However, he challenged the Constitutionality of the statute saying that he did not have proper notice. His reasoning was that it was not definitive enough and overly broad (where people could be charged for accidentally “peeping”).
The court first states that if it is a question of Constitutionality, they are to believe it is Constitutional unless proven otherwise. They then turn to address the 2 arguments presented by the defendants.
First, that the statute is not definitive. Here, the court can look to sources of common law to determine the clearness of the statute. They can look at legislative history, common law, and previous interpretations (indicia). Doing so, they determine that the word secretly is definitive enough to find the statute Constitutional.
Second, the defendant argues that the statute is overly broad. Meaning, one could be charged for accidentally glancing, or those who had lawful permission to be there. However, the court states that it is not overly broad because the general public would understand that it is those who have wrongful intent that will be charged.
If a statute is unclear we need to address how a statute is constructed. How is a statute constructed?
- Presumption of Constitutionality
- Plain meaning
- Legislative intent
- This is a case of legislative intent. So, we need to look at all the history, legislative history, common law, previous statutes, etc. when understanding if a statute is clear.
- Avoid redundancy
We address overly broad to make sure that it only encompasses illegal acts, making sure that no innocent conduct is wrapped in.
Lenity is when a statute is unclear, the tie goes to the runner. However, lenity does not apply here because the court was able to figure out what the statute means. Most cases does not involve lenity, most of the time they use a “fair import” rule from the MPC (moral penal code).
Desertrain v. City of Los Angeles
United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, 2014. 754 F.3d 1147.
Los Angeles is the defendant while Desertrain and associates are plaintiffs.
Is section 85.02 unconstitutionally vague?
A vague statute will be considered unconstitutional. A vague statute is one that leaves the public uncertain as to the conduct it prohibits.
Yes, the statute is unconstitutionally vague.
Upon receiving several complaints about homelessness the LAPD set a task force to enforce statute 85.02 more fully. The statute says that it is a violation of city ordinance to sleep in the car or reside in it from day to day. The LAPD began enforcing the statute and arrested and cited several individuals who are plaintiffs in this case.
Here, the plaintiffs claim that the statute is too vague because it fails to provide adequate notice of the conduct it criminalizes and is discriminatory in nature. The court agrees with both statements.
The court provides an analysis in two parts. First, there was no notice of the conduct it criminalizes. Here, the statute resulted in normal behavior being criminalized. Eating food, traveling, reading, or escaping the weather are all legal uses of a vehicle. However, under section 85.02, these actions could be considered criminal. What was more, the people who were engaging in this behavior were kept guessing about whether they were breaking the law or not. Therefore, this difference caused the rule to be vague and thus unconstitutional.
Second, this statute is discriminatory in nature because it applies specifically to the homeless. If it was enforced without difference, then there may be a case. However, all instances occurred and targeted homeless people.
The Protected Interest: “Human Being”
People v. Eulo
Court of Appeals of New York, 1984. 63 N.Y.2d 341, 482 N.Y.S.2d 436, 472 N.E.2d 286.
Eulo is the defendant while people are the plaintiffs. Defendants lost and appealed.
When does death occur? At the stopping of a beating heart or when braindead? What authority does the court have to make this determination?
Death is defined as understood in its ordinary and accepted meaning as it was understood at the time. If a definition to the term had been given prior to the statute, then that definition could apply.
Death is defined as when the brain has no function that cannot be reversed. Here, the instructions could have been better but seeing that there was no break in causation, there is no need to reevaluate (the result from the causation chain is the same).
Defendants cases are combined. They shot people in the head who was rushed to a hospital and put on life support. Once they were declared braindead, they were taken off life support and their organs were harvested for donation. The defendants claim that the jury instruction was faulty, that they should be only guilty of manslaughter, not murder, because the physician could be the cause of death, not the gunshot wound.
Here, the courts need to determine if death is defined as when the heart stops beating (traditional) or when the brain stops functioning (modern). Many jurisdictions have adopted a standard that if the brain stops functioning and the heart is functioning only by mechanical means, then the person could be declared dead at that time. Other jurisdictions maintain the traditional standard. Here, in New York, the legislature has not given a standard. So, the court uses the common understanding of the law to provide a definition for when it is dead. As this is consistent with the legislature’s concept of death, the court has the means to do so.
Legality means that conduct must be specifically prohibited by criminal laws before it can be punished. There are several parts of legality. First, Statutes must be understandable to ordinary citizens. Second, statutes need to be clear. This component is important because you need to know when someone has crossed the line. If we don’t know where the line is, then we don’t know if punishment is justified. Third, ambiguity should be designed to benefit the defendant. The tie goes to the defendant.
The content contained in this article may contain inaccuracies and is not intended to reflect the opinions, views, beliefs, or practices of any academic professor or publication. Instead, this content is a reflection on the author’s understanding of the law and legal practices.