Kolender v. Lawson & The Inevitability of Ambiguity

The Constitution is known to be a vague doctrine—this has its pros and cons—but regardless, the Constitution holds a great deal of irony in determining the unconstitutionality of vague statutes. We can witness this in play in the quite peculiar Supreme Court case of Kolender versus Lawson, in which statute 647e was ruled unconstitutional due to its vagueness.

Edward Lawson, who became a prolific activist for a while, experienced the vagueness of this statute first hand, amongst other friends he made along the way. His reasonable frustration with the law and particularly the racial profiling that occurred galvanized him to seek justice on this particular issue. His story unfortunately exemplifies our country’s problem with racial discrepancies in the experience of vagueness in the law.

Mr. Lawson was arrested no less than 15 times over the span of 22 months, according to his lawyer’s oral argument during their supreme court hearing. Each arrest occurred in white neighborhoods in Southern California, generally at night, by white police officers. As Oyez described him, he had an “unusual deportment,” since he was commonly seen wearing monochromatic sweatpants and t-shirts and wore his hair in dreadlocks. As Lawson describes it, he was walking back from a house party one night when the police stopped him to ask him to prove his identification. Flustered, Lawson questioned the officer, and moments later the officer took Lawson to the county jail, charged with violating statute 647e, the California ID law. Lawson felt compelled to take action due to the inconveniency and the consistency of this occurrence.  After he was released from jail, this occurrence repeatedly happened to Mr. Lawson. So he decided to take his case to court. He needed legal assistance but didn’t have the funds to obtain it. He began searching for law firms, next searched for local organizations, then finally resorted to civil rights organizations, and at the beginning they all rejected his case.

Instead, he decided to go to the law library on the University of California—Berkeley’s campus to read up on the law so that he could represent himself as a pro se litigate. After losing the State Courts, he challenged the District Court and lost again. Finally, he went to Circuit Court of Appeals who actually took Lawson’s case into consideration, and after about 7 years of this process, he won. Later, the case was reviewed by the Supreme Court, in which they upheld the Circuit Court’s decision.

During the Supreme Court hearing, Lawson’s opposing counsel argued that if the police witnesses someone “behaving suspiciously” and have fair reason to believe that they might have committed a crime, the police has the right to stop someone to ask for identification. Mr. Petersen acknowledged it is “impossible to write statute or opinion that can encompass every conceivable situation considered suspicious,” therefore it is a police officer’s duty to determine what that entails suspicion during the given context. He explains that Mr. Lawson was seen walking in the middle of an empty street at night, where there were no lights, and that was considered suspicious activity to law enforcement at the time, therefore the officer had reasonable intent in asking Mr. Lawson for identification. Mr. Petersen also defines identification to mean answers to questions such as “where are you going?” “what’s your address?” or “at what intersection is your address?” Justice Stevens questioned whether it’s a crime for someone to refuse to answer questions about their identity, such as the ones stated above, and if so, this may violate the 5th amendment.

Next, Mr. Rosenbaum argued against Mr. Petersen’s arguments, expressing that the statute in question “impermissibly offends due process vagueness doctrine by encouraging arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, by denying fair notice, and by trenching upon basic constitutional rights of privacy, security, and mobility.” Mr. Rosenbaum argues that the statute is unconstitutional due to its vagueness that lies on due process per the Fourteenth Amendment. Mr. Lawson retrospectively compared the statute to the Apartheid in South Africa in which all black people had to present ID anytime they were asked and had to explain to the police why they were doing whatever they were doing and where they were going. Justice White explains that if there is no constitutional right to anonymity, then you could be committing a crime by merely refusing to answer questions of identification.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to the Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision and ruled California statute 647e unconstitutional per the vagueness doctrine. While the police may ask citizens questions, they have no right to demand answers from them. The fourth amendment protects individuals from these types of unreasonable search and seizures, including in regard to providing identification of any kind. Additionally, if there were to be a law requiring identification when asked, it would give excessive power to law enforcement officials in which individuals are to be left alone or expected to be suspicious.

On one hand, the vagueness of certain foundational laws found in our constitution provide adequate leeway for judges to rule based on the context of the time. Our Bill of Rights has been applicable in every time frame since our constitution was conceived—quite a hefty feat of our founding fathers. Perhaps the fuel of our longstanding democracy is due to the very way our constitution is written. After all, if the constitution were overly specific, laws would have to be thrown out regularly due to inapplicability, perhaps if the common man were able to fully understand the purpose and implications of every law, there would be no need for judges, therefore stripping away a vital branch to our checks and balances system. If everyone could reach a consensus in opinion of the meaning of our laws, then there wouldn’t be countless controversial court cases each year that make its way to the Supreme Court.

Despite intentional vagueness, the constitution also contains a Vagueness Doctrine, a rule that falls on due process outlined by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments “requires criminal laws to state explicitly and definitely what conduct is punishable” (Cornell Law). The doctrine is upheld by requiring notice of what is subject to punishment and what is not, the ultimate goal being to prevent both arbitrary law enforcement and prosecutions.

Are arbitrary law enforcement and prosecutions inevitable?

Within the law, there are many arbitrary or vague terms used, such as the term “reasonable.” According to another blog post on Legal Theory Lexicon, the term “equal protection” in the 14th Amendment is vague as well. According to an issue of the California Law Review, Waldron suggests even the term “due process” is too vague. The constitution points to extremely abstract terms to describe its ideas. Due to its vagueness, lawyers and law students are acquainted with methodology involving balancing tests and using previous cases as context. Lawyers find themselves resorting to specified terms for due process, such as “procedural” or “substantive.” According to Waldron, “the use of contestable terms should not necessarily be regarded as a flaw” in the legal field. I happen to agree with Waldron in that the controversies of the law are in itself the very purpose of the field of law. Our purpose shouldn’t be to absolve the constitution of vagueness, but rather, continue arguing about the things worth arguing over for the betterment of our society.



  1. https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/461/352/
  2. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1982/81-1320
  3. https://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/461/352.html
  4. http://law.jrank.org/pages/24056/Kolender-v-Lawson-Significance.html
  5. https://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/criminal-law/criminal-law-keyed-to-bonnie/due-process/kolender-v-lawson/
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCx8Rw-Eomg
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjH5Ttc15a0
  8. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/pro_se
  9. https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/fourth_amendment
  10. https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/fifth_amendment
  11. https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxiv
  12. https://www.usconstitution.net/consttop_intr.html
  13. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2014/01/21/always-in-vague/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c5873251a975
  14. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/Vague
  15. https://www.facebook.com/ActivistEdwardCLawson/
  16. http://lsolum.typepad.com/legal_theory_lexicon/2006/08/legal_theory_le.html
  17. https://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1719&context=californialawreview

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