355 U.S. 225 (1957), 47, Lambert v. California

Docket Nº:No. 47
Citation:355 U.S. 225, 78 S.Ct. 240, 2 L.Ed.2d 228
Party Name:Lambert v. California
Case Date:December 16, 1957
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 225

355 U.S. 225 (1957)

78 S.Ct. 240, 2 L.Ed.2d 228




No. 47

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 16, 1957

Argued April 3, 1957

Restored to the docket for reargument June 3, 1957

Reargued October 16-17, 1957




A Los Angeles municipal ordinance makes it an offense for a person who has been convicted of a crime punishable in California as a felony to remain in the City or more than five days without registering with the Chief of Police. On appeal from a conviction for failure to register,

Held: when applied to a person who.has no actual knowledge of his duty to register, and where no showing is made of the probability of such knowledge, this ordinance violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 226-230.


Page 226

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 52.38(a) of the Los Angeles Municipal Code defines "convicted person" as follows:

Any person who, subsequent to January 1, 1921, has been or hereafter is convicted of an offense punishable [78 S.Ct. 242] as a felony in the State of California, or who has been or who is hereafter convicted of any offense in any place other than the State of California, which offense, if committed in the State of California, would have been punishable as a felony.

Section 52.39 provides that it shall be unlawful for "any convicted person" to be or remain in Los Angeles for a period of more than five days without registering; it requires any person having a place of abode outside the city to register if he comes into the city on five occasions or more during a 30-day period; and it prescribes the information to be furnished the Chief of Police on registering.

Section 52.43(b) makes the failure to register a continuing offense, each day's failure constituting a separate offense.

Appellant, arrested on suspicion of another offense, was charged with a violation of this registration law. * The evidence showed that she had been, at the time of her arrest, a resident of Los Angeles for over seven years. Within that period, she had been convicted in Los Angeles of the crime of forgery, an offense which California punishes as a felony. Though convicted of a crime punishable as a felony, she had not, at the time of her arrest, registered under the Municipal Code. At the trial, appellant

Page 227

asserted that § 52.39 of the Code denies her due process of law and other rights under the Federal Constitution unnecessary to enumerate. The trial court denied this objection. The case was tried to a jury, which found appellant guilty. The court fined her $250 and placed her on probation for three years. Appellant, renewing her constitutional objection, moved for arrest of judgment and a new trial. This motion was denied. On appeal, the constitutionality of the Code was again challenged. The Appellate Department of the Superior Court affirmed the judgment, holding there was no merit to the claim that the ordinance was unconstitutional. The case is here on appeal. 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2). We noted probable jurisdiction, 352 U.S. 914, and designated amicus curiae to appear in support of appellant. The case having been argued and reargued, we now hold that the registration provisions of the Code as sought to be applied here violate the Due Process requirement of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The registration provision, carrying criminal penalties, applies if a person has been convicted "of an offense punishable as a felony in the State of California" or, in case he has been convicted in another State, if the offense "would have been punishable as a felony" had it been committee in California. No element of willfulness is, by terms, included in the ordinance, nor read into it by the California court as a condition necessary for a conviction.

We must assume that appellant had no actual knowledge of the requirement that she register under this ordinance, as she offered proof of this defense, which was refused. The question is whether a registration act of this character violates due process where it is applied to a person who has no actual knowledge of his duty to register, and where no showing is made of the probability of such knowledge.

Page 228

We do not go with Blackstone in saying that "a vicious will" is necessary to constitute a crime, 4 Bl.Comm. *21, for conduct alone, without regard to the intent of the doer, is often sufficient. There is wide latitude in the lawmakers to declare an offense and to exclude elements of knowledge and diligence from its definition. See Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co. v. United States, 220 U.S. 559, 578. But we deal here with conduct that is [78 S.Ct. 243] wholly passive -- mere failure to register. It is unlike the commission of acts, or the failure to act under circumstances that should alert the doer to the consequences of his deed. Cf. Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. Minnesota, 218 U.S. 57; United States v. Balint, 258 U.S. 250; United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277, 284. The rule that "ignorance of the law will not excuse" (Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. Minnesota, supra, at 68) is deep in our law, as is the principle that, of all the powers of local government, the police power is "one of the least limitable." District of Columbia v. Brooke, 214 U.S....

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