Palmer v. City of Euclid, Ohio

Decision Date24 May 1971
Docket NumberNo. 143,143
Citation402 U.S. 544,91 S.Ct. 1563,29 L.Ed.2d 98
PartiesJames PALMER, Appellant, v. CITY OF EUCLID, OHIO
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Niki Z. Schwartz, Cleveland, Ohio, for appellant.

David J. Lombardo, Cleveland, Ohio, for appellee.


Appellant Palmer was convicted by a jury of violating the City of Euclid's 'suspicious person ordinance,' that is, of being

'(a)ny person who wanders about the streets or other public ways or who is found abroad at late or unusual hours in the night without any visible or lawful business and who does not give satisfactory account of himself.'

He was fined $50 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The County Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment and appeal to the Supreme Court of Ohio was dismissed 'for the reason that no substantial constitutional question exists herein.' We noted probable jurisdiction. 397 U.S. 1073, 90 S.Ct. 1525, 25 L.Ed.2d 808 (1970).

We reverse the judgment against Palmer because the ordinance is so vague and lacking in ascertainable standards of guilt that, as applied to Palmer, it failed to give 'a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice that his contemplated conduct is forbidden * * *.' United States v. Harriss, 347 U.S. 612, 617, 74 S.Ct. 808, 812, 98 L.Ed. 989 (1954).

The elements of the crime defined by the ordinance apparently are (1) wandering about the streets or being abroad at late or unusual hours; (2) being at the time without visible or lawful business;* and (3) failing to give a satisfactory explanation for his presence on the streets. Palmer, in his car, was seen late at night in a parking lot. A female left his car and entered by the front door an adjoining apartment house. Palmer then pulled onto the street, parked with his lights on, and used a two-way radio. He was not armed. He said he had just let off a friend. He was then arrested. At the station he gave three different addresses for himself and said he did not know his friend's name or where she was going when she left his car. Palmer could reasonably be charged with knowing that he was on the streets at a late or unusual hour and that denying knowledge of his friend's identity and claiming multiple addresses amounted to an unsatisfactory explanation under the ordinance. But in our view the ordinance gave insufficient notice to the average person that discharging a friend at an apartment house and then talking on a car radio while parked on the street was enough to show him to be 'without any visible or lawful business.' Insofar as this record reveals, everything appellant did was quite visible and there is no suggestion whatsoever that what he did was unlawful under local, state, or federal law. If his conduct nevertheless satisfied the being-without-visible-or-lawful-business element of the ordinance, as the state courts must have held, it...

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