378 U.S. 347 (1964), 10, Bouie v. City of Columbia

Docket Nº:No. 10. Argued October 14-15, 1963
Citation:378 U.S. 347, 84 S.Ct. 1697, 12 L.Ed.2d 894
Party Name:Bouie v. City of Columbia
Case Date:June 22, 1964
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 347

378 U.S. 347 (1964)

84 S.Ct. 1697, 12 L.Ed.2d 894



City of Columbia

No. 10. Argued October 14-15, 1963

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 1964



Petitioners, Negro "sit-in" demonstrators, entered a drugstore which extended service to Negroes at all departments except the restaurant department, and took seats in a restaurant booth without having received any notice that that department was barred to Negroes. They refused to leave upon being asked to do so, and were convicted of violating a South Carolina criminal trespass statute proscribing entry upon the lands of another after notice prohibiting such entry. Their convictions were affirmed by the State Supreme Court on the basis of a judicial construction of the statute, announced after the incident giving rise to these convictions, which construed the statute as applicable to the act of remaining on the premises of another after receiving notice to leave.

Held: The State Supreme Court, in giving retroactive application to its new construction of the statute, has deprived petitioners of their right to fair warning of a criminal prohibition, and thus has violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 348-363.

339 S.C. 570, 124 S.E.2d 332, reversed.

Page 348

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case arose out of a "sit-in" demonstration at Eckerd's Drug Store in Columbia, South Carolina. In addition to a lunch counter, Eckerd's maintained several other departments, including those for retail drugs, cosmetics, and prescriptions. Negroes and whites were invited to purchase and were served alike in all departments of the store with the [84 S.Ct. 1700] exception of the restaurant department, which was reserved for whites. There was no evidence that any signs or notices were posted indicating that Negroes would not be served in that department.

On March 14, 1960, the petitioners, two Negro college students, took seats in a booth in the restaurant department at Eckerd's and waited to be served. No one spoke to them or approached them to take their orders for food. After they were seated, an employee of the store put up a chain with a "no trespassing" sign attached. Petitioners continued to sit quietly in the booth. The store manager then called the city police department and asked the police to come and remove petitioners. After the police arrived at the store, the manager twice asked petitioners to leave. They did not do so. The Assistant Chief of Police then asked them to leave. When petitioner Bouie asked "For what?," the Assistant Chief replied: "Because it's a breach of the peace. . . ." Petitioners still refused to leave, and were then arrested. They were charged with breach of the peace in violation of § 15-909, Code of Laws of South Carolina, 1952, but were not convicted. Petitioner Bouie was also charged

Page 349

with resisting arrest, and was convicted, but the conviction was reversed by the State Supreme Court for insufficiency of evidence. Both petitioners were also charged with criminal trespass in violation of § 16-386 of the South Carolina Code of 1952 (1960 Cum.Supp.);1 on this charge, they were convicted, and their convictions were affirmed by the State Supreme Court over objections based upon the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. 239 S.C. 570, 124 S.E.2d 332. We granted certiorari to review the judgments affirming these trespass convictions. 374 U.S. 805.

We do not reach the question presented under the Equal Protection Clause, for we find merit in petitioners' contention under the Due Process Clause, and reverse the judgments on that ground.

Petitioners claim that they were denied due process of law either because their convictions under the trespass statute were based on no evidence to support the charge, see Thompson v. Louisville, 362 U.S. 199, or because the statute failed to afford fair warning that the conduct for which they have now been convicted had been made a crime. The terms of the statute define the prohibited conduct as "entry upon the lands of another . . . after notice from the owner or tenant prohibiting such entry. . . ."

Page 350

See note 1, supra. Petitioners emphasize the conceded fact that they did not commit such conduct; they received no "notice . . . prohibiting such entry" either before they entered Eckerd's Drug Store (where, in fact, they were invited to enter) or before they entered the restaurant department of the store and seated themselves in the booth. Petitioners thus argue that, under the statute as written, their convictions would have to be reversed for want of evidence under the Thompson case. The argument is persuasive, but beside the point, for the case in its present posture does not involve the statute "as written." The South Carolina [84 S.Ct. 1701] Supreme Court, in affirming petitioners' convictions, construed the statute to cover not only the act of entry on the premises of another after receiving notice not to enter, but also the act of remaining on the premises of another after receiving notice to leave.2 Under the statute as so construed, it is clear that there was evidence to support petitioners' convictions, for they concededly remained in the lunch counter booth after being asked to leave. Petitioners contend, however, that, by applying such a construction of the statute to affirm their convictions in this case, the State has punished them for conduct that was not criminal at the time they committed it, and hence has violated the requirement of the Due Process Clause that a criminal statute give fair warning of the conduct which it prohibits. We agree with this contention.

The basic principle that a criminal statute must give fair warning of the conduct that it makes a crime has

Page 351

often been recognized by this Court. As was said in United States v. Harriss, 347 U.S. 612, 617.

The constitutional requirement of definiteness is violated by a criminal statute that fails to give a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice that his contemplated conduct is forbidden by the statute. The underlying principle is that no man shall be held criminally responsible for conduct which he could not reasonably understand to be proscribed.

Thus, we have struck down a state criminal statute under the Due Process Clause where it was not "sufficiently explicit to inform those who are subject to it what conduct on their part will render them liable to its penalties." Connally v. General Const. Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391. We have recognized in such cases that

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,

ibid., and that

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.

Lanzetta v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451, 453.3

It is true that, in the Connally and Lanzetta cases and in other typical applications of the principle, the uncertainty as to the statute's prohibition resulted from vague or overbroad language in the statute itself, and the Court concluded that the statute was "void for vagueness." The instant case seems distinguishable, since, on its face, the language of § 16-386 of the South Carolina Code was admirably narrow and precise; the statute applied only to "entry upon the lands of another . . . after

Page 352

notice . . . prohibiting such entry. . . ." The thrust of the distinction, however, is to produce a potentially greater deprivation of the right to fair notice in this sort of case, where the claim is that a statute precise on its face [84 S.Ct. 1702] has been unforeseeably and retroactively expanded by judicial construction, than in the typical "void for vagueness" situation. When a statute on its face is vague or overbroad, it at least gives a potential defendant some notice, by virtue of this very characteristic, that a question may arise as to its coverage and that it may be held to cover his contemplated conduct. When a statute on its face is narrow and precise, however, it lulls the potential defendant into a false sense of security, giving him no reason even to suspect that conduct clearly outside the scope of the statute as written will be retroactively brought within it by an act of judicial construction. If the Fourteenth Amendment is violated when a person is required "to speculate as to the meaning of penal statutes," as in Lanzetta, or to "guess at (the statute's) meaning and differ as to its application," as in Connally, the violation is that much greater when, because the uncertainty as to the statute's meaning is itself not revealed until the court's decision, a person is not even afforded an opportunity to engage in such speculation before committing the act in question.

There can be no doubt that a deprivation of the right of fair warning can result not only from vague statutory language, but also from an unforeseeable and retroactive judicial expansion of narrow and precise statutory language. As the Court recognized in Pierce v. United States, 314 U.S. 306, 311

judicial enlargement of a criminal act by interpretation is at war with a fundamental concept of the common law that crimes must be defined with appropriate definiteness.

Even where vague statutes are concerned, it has been pointed out that the vice in such an enactment cannot "be cured in a given

Page 353

case by a construction in that very case placing valid limits on the statute," for

the objection of vagueness is...

To continue reading