469 U.S. 1146 (1985), 84-5060, Wright v. New Jersey

Docket Nº:No. 84-5060
Citation:469 U.S. 1146, 105 S.Ct. 890, 83 L.Ed.2d 906
Party Name:Charles WRIGHT v. NEW JERSEY
Case Date:January 14, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court

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469 U.S. 1146 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 890, 83 L.Ed.2d 906

Charles WRIGHT



No. 84-5060

United States Supreme Court.

January 14, 1985

On appeal from the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

Case below, 187 N.J.Super. 160, 453 A.2d 1352; 93 N.J. 259, 460 A.2d 665; 96 N.J. 170, 475 A.2d 38.


[105 S.Ct. 890] The appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question.

Justice BRENNAN, with whom Justice MARSHALL joins, dissenting.

The appellant Charles Wright was convicted of possessing an "exacto" knife. Under New Jersey law, possession of this sort of object is entirely legal in most circumstances; possession becomes unlawful only "under circumstances not manifestly appropriate for such lawful uses as it may have." N.J.Stat.Ann.§ 2C:39-5d (West [105 S.Ct. 891] 1982) (emphasis added). 1 As construed by the state courts, although this statute requires proof that the defendant "knowingly" possessed the object in question, there is no requirement that he have done so with any unlawful purpose.

The Supreme Court of New Jersey affirmed the constitutionality of § 2C:39-5d in this and a companion case, see State v. Wright, 96 N.J. 170, 475 A.2d 38 (1984); State v. Lee, 96 N.J. 156, 475

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A.2d 31 (1984), with one justice arguing in dissent that the operative standard "not manifestly appropriate" is "so lacking in any precise meaning as to defy definition," State v. Lee, supra, at 168, 475 A.2d, at 37 (Clifford, J., dissenting). I believe this appeal presents the substantial question whether § 2C:39-5d is impermissibly vague in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent from the Court's dismissal of the appeal for want of a substantial federal question.


Wright, the subject of several outstanding arrest warrants, was apprehended while conversing with a friend on a street corner in Teaneck, New Jersey. The arresting officers searched Wright at police headquarters, where they found the exacto knife in question concealed inside one of his socks. The instant prosecution for violation of § 2C:39-5d followed.

At trial, Wright contended that he had not intended to use the knife against person or property and that the statute is unconstitutionally vague. The trial court rejected these arguments. With respect to the question of Wright's intent, the court instructed the jury that it was "not necessary that the State prove that [the] defendant possessed the weapon with a purpose to use it unlawfully against the person or property of another." Juris. Statement 4. As for the definition of the "not manifestly appropriate" standard, which Wright contended was meaningless, the court instructed: "If you ... find that the circumstances under which the weapon was possessed could not be easily understood or recognized as being appropriate to a lawful use of the instrument in question here then possession of the weapon ... is prohibited." State v. Wright, supra, at 172, 475 A.2d, at 39 (emphasis added). Wright was convicted as charged and sentenced to 200 days in the Bergen County jail.

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, reversed Wright's conviction, reasoning that the legislature could not have intended to impose criminal sanctions on one whose conduct merely "was not 'easily understood or recognized' from the circumstances." 187 N.J.Super. 160, 164, 453 A.2d 1352, 1354 (1982). The Supreme Court of New Jersey reversed the Appellate Division, however, and concluded that the trial court's interpretation properly [105 S.Ct. 892] reflected the legislature's intent in enacting

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§ 2C:39-5d. 96 N.J., at 173, 475 A.2d, at 40. 2 The court rejected Wright's vagueness challenge for the reasons set forth in its companion decision in State v. Lee, where it had concluded that the "not manifestly appropriate" standard carries "sufficient warning so that an ordinary person 'is apprised with a reasonable degree of certainty of that which is proscribed' " and so that law enforcement officials have sufficient notice of what conduct is prohibited to guard against arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement. 96 N.J., at 166, 475 A.2d, at 36 (citation omitted). This appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1257(2) followed.


The standards for evaluating whether a statute is unconstitutionally vague are well settled:

"Vague laws offend several important values. First, because we assume that man is free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct, we insist that laws give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning. Second, if arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is to be prevented, laws must provide explicit standards for those who apply them. A

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vague law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application". Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108-109, 92 S.Ct. 2294, 2298-2299, 33 L.Ed.2d 222 (1972) (footnotes omitted).

As construed by the New Jersey courts, § 2C:39-5d authorizes arrest and conviction whenever an individual possesses any object capable of inflicting serious injury in circumstances "not ... easily understood or recognized as being appropriate" by the authorities and a jury, even though the individual may have had no intent whatsoever to possess or use the object for unlawful purposes. State v. Wright, 96 N.J., at 172, 475 A.2d, at 39. I believe there is a substantial question whether such an amorphous crime is unconstitutionally vague.

First. I agree with the dissent below that there is a serious question whether the "not manifestly appropriate" standard gives fair notice of the conduct that is prohibited or is instead "so lacking in any precise meaning as to defy definition." State v. Lee, supra, at 168, 475 A.2d, at 37 [105 S.Ct. 893] (CLIFFORD, J., DISSENTING). 3 "[A] Statute which either forbids OR requires the...

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