Rabe v. Washington 8212 247, 71

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation405 U.S. 313,92 S.Ct. 993,31 L.Ed.2d 258
Docket NumberNo. 71,71
PartiesWilliam RABE, Petitioner, v. State of WASHINGTON. —247
Decision Date20 March 1972

See 406 U.S. 911, 92 S.Ct. 1604.

William L. Dwyer, Seattle, Wash., for petitioner.

Curtis Ludwig, Kennewick, Wash., for respondent.


Petitioner was the manager of the Park Y Drive-In Theatre in Richland, Washington, where the motion picture Carmen Baby was shown. The motion picture is a loose adaptation of Bizet's opera Carmen, con- taining sexually frank scenes but no instances of sexual consummation are explicitly portrayed. After reviewing the film from outside the theater fence on two successive evenings, a police officer obtained a warrant and arrested petitioner for violating Washington's obscenity statute. Wash.Rev.Code § 9.68.010. Petitioner was later convicted and, on appeal, the Supreme Court of Washington affirmed, 79 Wash.2d 254, 484 P.2d 917 (1971). We granted certiorari. 404 U.S. 909, 92 S.Ct. 228, 30 L.Ed.2d 181. We reverse petitioner's conviction.

The statute under which petitioner was convicted, Wash.Rev.Code § 9.68.010, made criminal the knowing display of 'obscene' motion pictures:

'Every person who—

'(1) Having knowledge of the contents thereof shall exhibit, sell, distribute, display for sale or distribution, or having knowledge of the contents thereof shall have in his possession with the intent to sell or distribute any book, magazine, pamphlet, comic book, newspaper, writing, photograph, motion picture film, phonograph record, tape or wire recording, picture, drawing, figure, image, or any object or thing which is obscene; or

'(2) Having knowledge of the contents thereof shall cause to be performed or exhibited, or shall engage in the performance or exhibition of any show, act, play, dance or motion picture which is obscene;

'Shall be guilty of a gross misdemeanor.'

In affirming petitioner's conviction, however, the Supreme Court of Washington did not hold that Carmen Baby was obscene under the test laid down by this Court's prior decisions. E.g., Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 77 S.Ct. 1304, 1 L.Ed.2d 1498; A Book Named 'John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure' v. Attorney General of Com. of Massachusetts, 383 U.S. 413, 86 S.Ct. 975, 16 L.Ed.2d 1. Uncertain 'whether the movie was offensive to the standards relating to sexual matters in that area and whether the movie advocated ideas or was of artistic or literary value,' the court concluded that if it 'were to apply the strict rules of Roth, the film 'Carmen Baby' probably would pass the definitional obscenity test if the viewing audience consisted only of consenting adults.' 79 Wash.2d, at 263, 484 P.2d, at 922. Respondent read the opinion of the Supreme Court of Washington more narrowly, but nonetheless implied that because the film had 'redeeming social value' it was not, by itself, 'obscene' under the Roth standard. The Supreme Court of Washington nonetheless upheld the conviction, reasoning that in 'the context of its exhibition,' Carmen Baby was obscene. Ibid.

To avoid the constitutional vice of vagueness, it is necessary, at a minimum, that a statute give fair notice that certain conduct is proscribed. The statute under which petitioner was prosecuted, however, made no mention that the 'context' or location of the exhibition was an element of the offense somehow modifying the word 'obscene.' Petitioner's conviction was thus affirmed under a statute with a meaning quite different from the one he was charged with violating.

'It is as much a violation of due process to send an accused to prison following conviction of a charge on which he was never tried as it would be to convict him upon a charge that was never made.' Cole v. Arkansas, 333 U.S. 196, 201, 68 S.Ct. 514, 517, 92 L.Ed. 644. Petitioner's conviction cannot, therefore, be allowed to stand. Gregory v. City of Chicago, 394 U.S. 111, 89 S.Ct. 946, 22 L.Ed.2d 134; Garner v. Louisiana, 368 U.S. 157, 82 S.Ct. 248, 7 L.Ed.2d 207; Cole v. Arkansas, supra.

Under the interpretation given § 9.68.010 by the Supreme Court of Washington, petitioner is criminally punished for showing Carmen Baby in a drive-in but he may exhibit it to adults in an indoor theater with impunity. The statute, so construed, is impermissibly vague as applied to petitioner because of its failure to give him fair notice that criminal liability is dependent upon the place where the film is shown.

What we said last Term in Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 19, 91 S.Ct. 1780, 1785, 29 L.Ed.2d 284, answers respondent's contention that the peculiar interest in prohibiting outdoor displays of sexually frank motion pictures justifies the application of this statute to petitioner:

'Any attempt to support this conviction on the ground that the statute seeks to preserve an appropriately decorous atmosphere in the courthouse where Cohen was arrested must fail in the absence of any language in the statute that would have put appellant on notice that certain kinds of otherwise...

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    ...instances in which a person refuses to leave the land of another after being ordered to do so”); see also Rabe v. Washington, 405 U.S. 313, 315, 92 S.Ct. 993, 31 L.Ed.2d 258 (holding due process violation where state court broadened reach of obscenity statute by finding dispositive manner i......
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  • No-Poach, No Precedent: How DOJ's Aggressive Stance on Criminalizing Labor Market Agreements Runs Counter to Antitrust Jurisprudence.
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    ...that a movie fitfor exhibition in an indoor theater to adults could not be shown in a drive-in theater. In Rabe v. State of Washington (405 U.S. 313; 92 S. Ct. 993) with a per opinion the Court held that there was vagueness in the statute. &dquo;We hold simplythat a State may not criminally......

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