306 U.S. 451 (1939), 308, Lanzetta v. New Jersey

Docket Nº:No. 308
Citation:306 U.S. 451, 59 S.Ct. 618, 83 L.Ed. 888
Party Name:Lanzetta v. New Jersey
Case Date:March 27, 1939
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 451

306 U.S. 451 (1939)

59 S.Ct. 618, 83 L.Ed. 888

Lanzetta

v.

New Jersey

No. 308

United States Supreme Court

March 27, 1939

Argued January 9, 1939

APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF ERRORS AND APPEALS OF NEW JERSEY

Syllabus

An Act of New Jersey declares:

Any person not engaged in any lawful occupation, known to be a member of any gang consisting of two or more persons, who has been convicted at least three times of being a disorderly person, or who has been convicted of any crime in this or any other State, is declared to be a gangster. . . .

Every violation is punishable by fine not exceeding $10,000 or imprisonment not exceeding 20 years, or both.

Held: repugnant to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, because of its vagueness and uncertainty. P. 453.

120 N.J.L. 189; 198 A. 837, reversed.

APPEAL from a judgment affirming a conviction and sentence of three men as gangsters. See also 118 N.J.L. 212, 192 A. 89.

Page 452

BUTLER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BUTLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

By this appeal, we are called on to decide whether, by reason of vagueness and uncertainty, a recent enactment of New Jersey, § 4, c. 155, Laws 1934, is repugnant to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It is as follows:

Any person not engaged in any lawful occupation, known to be a member of any gang consisting of two or more persons, who has been convicted at least three times of being a disorderly person, or who has been convicted of any crime in this or in any other State, is declared to be a gangster. . .1

Every violation is punishable by fine not exceeding $10,000 or imprisonment not exceeding 20 years, or both. § 5.

In the court of quarter sessions of Cape May County, appellants were accused of violating the quoted clause. The indictment charges that, on four days, June 12, 16, 19, and 24, 1936,

they, and each of them, not being engaged in any lawful occupation; they, and all of them, known to be members of a gang, consisting of two or more persons, and they, and each of them, having been convicted of a crime in the State of Pennsylvania, are hereby declared to be gangsters.

There was a trial, verdict of guilty, and judgment of conviction on which each was sentenced to be imprisoned in the state prison for not more than ten years and not less than five years, at hard labor. On the authority of its recent decision in State v. Bell, 188 A. 737, 15 N.J. Misc. 109, the supreme court entered judgment affirming the conviction. 118 N.J.L. 212, 192 A. 89. The court of errors and appeals affirmed, 120 N.J.L. 189, 197 A. 360, on the authority of its decision,

Page 453

State v. Gaynor, 119 N.J.L. 582, 198 A. 37, affirming State v. Bell.

If, on its face, the challenged provision is repugnant to the due process clause, specification of details of the offense intended to be charged would not serve to validate it. Cf. United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 221; Czarra v. Board of Medical Supervisors, 25 App.D.C. 443, 453. It is the statute, not the accusation under it, that prescribes the rule to govern conduct and warns against transgression. See Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 368; Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444. No one may be required, at peril of life, liberty or property, to speculate as to the meaning of penal statutes. All are entitled to be informed as to what the State commands or forbids.2 The applicable rule is stated in Connally v. General Construction. Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391:

That the terms of a penal statute creating a new offense must be sufficiently explicit to inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties is a well recognized requirement consonant alike with ordinary notions of fair play and the settled rules of law. And a statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates the first essential of due process of law.

The phrase "consisting of two or more persons" is all that purports to define "gang." The meanings of that

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word indicated in dictionaries and in historical and sociological writings are numerous and varied.3 Nor is the

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meaning derivable from [59 S.Ct. 620] the common law,4 for neither in that field nor anywhere in the language of the law is there definition of the word. Our attention has not been called to, and we are unable to find, any other statute attempting to make it criminal to be a member of a "gang."5

In State v. Gaynor, supra, the court of errors and appeals dealt with the word. It said:

Public policy ordains that a combination designed to wage war upon society shall be dispersed and its members rendered incapable of harm. This is the objective of section 4 . . . and it is therefore a valid exercise of the legislative power. . . . The evident aim of this provision was to render penal the association of criminals for the pursuit of criminal enterprises; that is the gist of the legislative expression. It cannot be gainsaid that such was within the competency of the legislature; the mere statement of the purpose carries justification of the act. . . . If society cannot impose such taint of illegality upon the confederation of convicted criminals, who have no lawful occupation, under circumstances denoting . . . the pursuit of criminal objectives, it is helpless against one of the most menacing forms of evil activity. . . . The primary function of government . . . is to render security to its subjects.

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Then undertaking to find the meaning of "gang" as used in the challenged enactment, the opinion states:

In the construction of the provision, the word is to be given a meaning consistent with the general object of the statute. In its original sense, it signifies action -- "to go;" in its modern usage, without qualification, it denotes -- in common intent and understanding -- criminal action. It is defined as "a company of persons acting together for some purpose, usually criminal," while the term "gangster" is defined as "a member of a gang of roughs, hireling criminals, thieves, or the like." Webster's New International Dictionary [59 S.Ct. 621] (2d ed.). And the Oxford English Dictionary likewise defines the word "gang" as "any company of persons who go about together or act in concert [in modern use mainly for criminal purposes]." Such is plainly the legislative sense of the term.

If worded in accordance with the court's explication, the challenged provision would read as follows:

Any person not engaged in any lawful occupation, known to be a member of any gang consisting of two or more persons (meaning a company of persons acting together for...

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