Supreme court states vagueness doctrine a “shield” for criminal defense

Defense strategies may question the validity of the law.

Those accused of a crime can defend themselves in court. Various defense strategies can prove useful. Some may use a strategy that questions whether or not enforcement officers followed proper protocol to gather evidence and others will delve into the validity of the law. One example that can question the validity of the law is the vagueness doctrine.

What is the vagueness doctrine?

The vagueness doctrine is a constitutional rule that requires criminal laws to provide a clear definition. Clear laws are important because they help to reduce the risk of subjective enforcement and potential abuse.

When would a defendant argue the validity of the law?

A recent example pulls from a previous case. The previous case from 2015, Johnson v. United States, involved the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) deciding the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) was a violation of the vagueness doctrine. ACCA directs the court to sentence those who are convicted for three or more prior convictions for “violent felonies” to a fifteen-year mandatory minimum. It defines “violent felonies” to include burglary, arson or extortion or those crimes that involve the use of explosives or “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” SCOTUS struck back the last phrasing of this definition, referred to as the residual clause, as void for vagueness.

More recently, SCOTUS applied the vagueness violation in United States v. Davis. This case took on another, similar rule found in Section 924(c) of the criminal code. This law prohibits the use of firearms to further a “crime of violence” or drug trafficking crime. It then goes on to define a “crime of violence” as an “offense that by its nature, involves a substantial risk of physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” SCOTUS also found this definition void for vagueness.

What does this mean for those charged with a crime?

This case hinged on the definition the state used to build its case against the defendant. Ultimately, the state used what SCOTUS determined was an invalid definition. This provides an example of the complexity of criminal defense cases. Even those that seem relatively straight forward could turn on which statute is used to build the case. As such, it is wise to seek legal counsel to help better ensure all potential defense strategies are taken into consideration before moving forward with the case.

Skip to content