People v. Mirmirani, Cr. 21945

Citation636 P.2d 1130,30 Cal.3d 375,178 Cal.Rptr. 792
Decision Date07 December 1981
Docket NumberCr. 21945
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Parties, 636 P.2d 1130 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Shahram MIRMIRANI, Defendant and Respondent.

John K. Van de Kamp, Dist. Atty., Donald J. Kaplan and Roderick W. Leonard Deputy Dist. Attys., for plaintiff and appellant.

Wilbur F. Littlefield, Public Defender, Dennis A. Fischer, George H. Meyerhoff and Melissa Hill, Deputy Public Defenders, for defendant and respondent.

Quin Denvir, State Public Defender, and John Denvir as amici curiae on behalf of defendant and respondent.

BIRD, Chief Justice.

Are Penal Code sections 422 and 422.5, 1 which make it a felony to threaten to commit certain crimes "in order to achieve social or political goals," unconstitutionally vague?


On May 1, 1979, Shahram Mirmirani walked into the Van Nuys police station in Los Angeles and spoke with Police Officer Charles Meter. In testimony at the preliminary examination, Meter described their conversation as follows. 2 Mirmirani asked Meter for the names of the two police officers who had arrested him five days earlier for possession of a small marijuana plant in his apartment. 3 Meter told Mirmirani that the officers were Billy Kendig and William McAllister. Mirmirani said he wanted to sue them. Clenching his hand into a fist, he gestured toward his chin as if to punch himself. He said that the officers had done that to him so he wanted to do the same to them. Meter asked if he meant "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," and Mirmirani replied "yes."

Mirmirani went on to say that he did not want money from the officers, but wanted the court to take a child away from each of them. When Meter said the court would not do that, Mirmirani said he would do it himself. He explained that his wife had been pregnant when the officers arrested him, and had then gone into labor and delivered a baby that lived only four or five minutes. He said something about the "Islamic Code" 4 and indicated that after he had taken the life of a child of each of the officers he and his wife would be out of the country within three days. Mirmirani spoke with Meter for approximately one-half hour. They shook hands as Mirmirani left.

Meter testified that he was very disturbed by Mirmirani, in part because Mirmirani appeared very calm, rational and precise. Meter called Kendig and McAllister to the station from their patrol and told them of the conversation. He also informed his superiors at the police station.

McAllister and Kendig both testified that they were concerned by Meter's description of Mirmirani's conduct. They indicated that they were accustomed to threats against their own safety, but their families had never been threatened. They continued with their patrol duties, but returned to the station twice to consult with Meter about precautions to ensure the safety of their families. After the second discussion, they received permission to return home, because they felt they were too concerned to concentrate on their work. Meter suggested that they contact the police psychologist, but neither of them did so.

Meter and his superiors arranged increased police patrols in the neighborhoods in which McAllister and Kendig lived. These patrols continued for at least three days. They also contacted the police department intelligence division, which dealt with threats on police officers, and the public disorder intelligence division, which dealt with information relating to "political-type" groups. Neither division had any information about Mirmirani.

The following day, May 2, 1979, Meter accompanied police department investigators to Mirmirani's apartment. The door was opened by a pregnant woman who said she was Mirmirani's wife. When Meter asked Mirmirani why he had said his baby had died, Mirmirani muttered and appeared confused.

Kendig testified that his fears continued for up to two weeks after the initial incident. McAllister testified that his fear eased after he found that Mirmirani's wife was still pregnant. Both officers warned their wives and neighbors about the threats. They changed their schedules for some time after the incident so they could be at home with their families in the evenings.

As a result of these events, Mirmirani was arrested and charged with two violations of section 422, subdivision (a), a felony. At his preliminary examination on the charges, he argued that there was no evidence that his threats had been made in order to achieve a social or political goal as required by the statute. The magistrate replied, "(Y)ou can call a personal vendetta a social goal, perhaps." Although "(i)t is very difficult to define just what the legislature had in mind," the magistrate held that Mirmirani's threat was both social and political and therefore fell within the purview of the statute. The magistrate felt that the threats were apparently designed to "strik(e) fear at the heart of those who have arrested him in the ordinary course of duty.... There is another side of politics which is our way of life and the way our government is constituted and its orderly processes, where these things are not to be tolerated."

Mirmirani was held to answer. An information was filed against him on July 29, 1979. A motion to set aside the information pursuant to section 995 was filed as well as a demurrer to the information. These motions were based on the contention that there was no evidence that Mirmirani's threats were politically or socially motivated and that sections 422 and 422.5 were unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.

During the argument on Mirmirani's motions, the district attorney conceded that the statute was vague. "I don't know what the words, 'to achieve social or political goals,' mean( ).... I don't think your Honor knows what the words mean .... It's my position that the words 'to achieve social or political goals' are the words that create any semblance of unconstitutionality because they are vague, and simply because if the defendant doesn't know what it means and the Court doesn't know what it means, we don't know whether we are talking about a personal goal or a political goal or a general goal. Those words are vague." The district attorney argued that those words should be stricken from the statute.

The trial court overruled Mirmirani's demurrer, but granted the motion to set aside the information under section 995. This ruling was based on the fact there was no evidence to support a finding that Mirmirani made threats to achieve social or political goals. The district attorney appealed from the granting of the section 995 motion. Mirmirani challenged the constitutionality of sections 422 and 422.5.


Section 422 makes it a felony to "willfully threaten( ) to commit a crime which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person, with intent to terrorize another or with reckless disregard of the risk of terrorizing another," if such threats cause another person "reasonably to be in sustained fear for his or her( ) or their immediate family's safety." 5 (Emphasis added.) To "terrorize" is defined by section 422.5 as "creat(ing) a climate of fear and intimidation by means of threats or violent action causing sustained fear for personal safety in order to achieve social or political goals." (Emphasis added.)

Read together, the two statutes penalize only threats made with intent to achieve "social or political goals." 6 Respondent Mirmirani contends that the phrase "social or political goals" is unconstitutionally vague. Further, he argues that the offending phrase cannot be severed from the rest of sections 422 and 422.5. Therefore, both sections must be declared unconstitutional in their entirety.

"The requirement of a reasonable degree of certainty in legislation, especially in the criminal law, is a well established element of the guarantee of due process of law. '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 ... "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. " ' (Lanzetta v. New Jersey ((1939) 306 U.S. 451, 453, 59 S.Ct. 618, 619, 83 L.Ed. 888), (quoting) Connally v. General Const. Co. ((1926) 269 U.S. 385, 391, 46 S.Ct. 126, 127, 70 L.Ed. 322).) Such also is the law of the State of California. (People v. McCaughan ((1957) 49 Cal.2d 409, 414, 317 P.2d 974).)" (In re Newbern (1960) 53 Cal.2d 786, 792, 3 Cal.Rptr. 364, 350 P.2d 116.)

If a law is vague, several serious constitutional problems emerge. First, insufficient notice is provided to the citizenry as to what is prohibited. "Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing fair warning." (Grayned v. City of Rockford (1972) 408 U.S. 104, 108, 92 S.Ct. 2294, 2299, 33 L.Ed.2d 222.) Second, vague laws do not provide explicit standards to those who must enforce them. "(V)ague statutory language also creates the danger that police, prosecutors, judges and juries will lack sufficient standards to reach their decisions, thus opening the door to arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement of the law." (Pryor v. Municipal Court (1979) 25 Cal.3d 238, 252, 158 Cal.Rptr. 330, 599 P.2d 636. See also In re Newbern, supra, 53 Cal.2d 786, 796, 3 Cal.Rptr. 364, 350 P.2d 116.)

Finally, when a criminal statute impacts on First Amendment rights, greater precision should be required to survive a void-for-vagueness challenge. 7 "(S)tricter standards of permissible statutory vagueness may be applied to a statute having a potentially inhibiting effect on speech; a man (or woman) may the less be required to act at his (or her) peril here, because the free dissemination of ideas may be...

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