State v. Williams

Decision Date28 June 2001
Docket NumberNo. 69382-0.,69382-0.
Citation26 P.3d 890,144 Wash.2d 197
PartiesSTATE of Washington, Respondent, v. Chris WILLIAMS, Petitioner.
CourtWashington Supreme Court

Gene M. Grantham, Seattle, Amicus Curiae on Behalf of Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Pamela Beth Loginsky, Olympia, Amicus Curiae on Behalf of Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Aaron Hugh Caplan, Seattle, Amicus Curiae on Behalf of American Civil Liberties.

Washington Appellate Project, Gregory Charles Link, Seattle, for Petitioner.

Norm Maleng, King County Prosecutor, Ann Marie Summers, Deputy, Seattle, for Respondent.


Chris Williams seeks reversal of the Court of Appeals decision which affirmed his conviction for misdemeanor criminal harassment under former RCW 9A.46.020(1)(a)(i) or (1)(a)(iv) (1992). The primary issue is whether subsection (1)(a)(iv) of the criminal harassment statute is unconstitutionally vague or overbroad because it employs the term "mental health." We conclude this part of the statute does not pass constitutional muster and reverse.


Chris Williams was an employee at Sleep Country USA in Kent. On the morning of January 2, 1995, Williams was fired by his manager Michael Cannizzaro. Williams returned to the store at 6:00 p.m. that same day to drop off his uniforms and collect his final paycheck. Cannizzaro told Williams he would not be able to pick up his paycheck until the next scheduled pay day which was January 12.

Williams and a friend returned to the store on January 11 asking the bookkeeper, Sandra Marsh, for Williams' paycheck. Marsh told Williams to speak to Cannizzaro about getting his check early. Williams then approached Cannizzaro and again demanded his check. Cannizzaro told Williams pay day was not until January 12 and he would have to wait until then just like everyone else. Williams argued that the night shift received their paychecks on January 11. Cannizzaro replied this was a special exception and reiterated that Williams would have to wait until the next business day to collect his check.

Williams then shifted his body sideways and put his hand on his hip, stating: "Motherfucker you better give me my check." Clerk's Papers (CP) at 175. Over Williams' shoulder Marsh mouthed the words, "He has a gun." Id. at 177. Cannizzaro was frightened and gave Williams his check. As Williams turned to leave, Cannizzaro saw what he believed was the handle of a gun protruding from Williams' pants. Before exiting the store Williams turned and said, "Don't make me strap your ass." Id. at 179. Williams and his friend then left the store, got in their car, and drove off. Cannizzaro immediately called the police.

Williams was charged with misdemeanor harassment under both former RCW 9A.46.020(1)(a)(i), which pertains to threats of physical injury, and, in the alternative, (1)(a)(iv), which pertains to threats which harm another's "mental health." He was convicted by a jury pursuant to instructions which also listed the elements in the alternative. On appeal the King County Superior Court affirmed. The Court of Appeals granted discretionary review, affirming the conviction in a published opinion, State v. Williams, 98 Wash.App. 765, 991 P.2d 107 (2000), holding the criminal harassment statute is neither overbroad nor unconstitutionally vague. We granted review.


Williams asserts the statute under which he was convicted is unconstitutionally vague because it contains no meaningful definition of the term "mental health." We agree.

This criminal harassment statute provides:

(1) A person is guilty of harassment if:
(a) Without lawful authority, the person knowingly threatens:
(i) To cause bodily injury in the future1 to the person threatened or to any other person; or
. . . .
(iv) Maliciously to do any other act which is intended to substantially harm the person threatened or another with respect to his or her physical or mental health or safety; and
(b) The person by words or conduct places the person threatened in reasonable fear that the threat will be carried out....

Former RCW 9A.46.020(1)(a)(i), (1)(a)(iv), (b) (1992) (emphasis added).

City of Bellevue v. Lorang reiterated the test to determine whether a statute is unconstitutionally vague:

"Under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a statute is void for vagueness if either: (1) the statute `does not define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is proscribed'; or (2) the statute `does not provide ascertainable standards of guilt to protect against arbitrary enforcement.'"

City of Bellevue v. Lorang, 140 Wash.2d 19, 30, 992 P.2d 496 (2000) (quoting State v. Halstien, 122 Wash.2d 109, 117, 857 P.2d 270 (1993) (quoting City of Spokane v. Douglass, 115 Wash.2d 171, 178, 795 P.2d 693 (1990))).

The purpose of the vagueness doctrine is twofold: "first, to provide citizens with fair warning of what conduct they must avoid; and second, to protect them from arbitrary, ad hoc, or discriminatory law enforcement." Halstien, 122 Wash.2d at 116-17, 857 P.2d 270; Lorang, 140 Wash.2d at 30, 992 P.2d 496 (citing Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108-09, 92 S.Ct. 2294, 33 L.Ed.2d 222 (1972)); State v. Lee, 135 Wash.2d 369, 393, 957 P.2d 741 (1998); City of Tacoma v. Luvene, 118 Wash.2d 826, 844, 827 P.2d 1374 (1992). "A statute is unconstitutionally vague if either requirement is not satisfied." Halstien, 122 Wash.2d at 117-18, 857 P.2d 270 (citing Douglass, 115 Wash.2d at 178, 795 P.2d 693). Moreover, "we are especially cautious in the interpretation of vague statutes when First Amendment interests are implicated." Lorang, 140 Wash.2d at 31, 992 P.2d 496.

Williams contends the criminal harassment statute fails both aspects of the vagueness test because the statute does not define the criminal offense in a way a reasonable person would know what conduct is prohibited and because there is no ascertainable standard to prevent arbitrary enforcement.

As Williams correctly observes, the statute does not define the term "mental health." True enough however "The fact that some terms in a statute are not defined does not mean the enactment is unconstitutionally vague." Lee, 135 Wash.2d at 393, 957 P.2d 741. Rather "[a] statute is void for vagueness if it is framed in terms so vague that persons of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its applicability." Id. (citing Douglass, 115 Wash.2d at 177, 795 P.2d 693).

Williams argues a reasonable person is left to guess at what conduct is prohibited under the "mental health" aspect of this statute. For example, does the statute prohibit a person from making threats which cause others mere irritation or emotional discomfort or does it only prohibit those threats which cause others to suffer a diagnosable mental condition? A plain reading of the statute provides no answer.

Notwithstanding, the Court of Appeals opined the statute "provides the ordinary person with constitutionally-sufficient notice" because it contains the following limitations: (1) it only prohibits acts intended to cause substantial harm to another's mental health; (2) the threat must be knowing and malicious; (3) the threat must be calculated to do substantial harm to another's mental well being; and (4) the fear associated with the threat must be reasonable. Williams, 98 Wash.App. at 775,991 P.2d 107. The Court of Appeals also concluded these same limitations are "sufficient standards to prevent arbitrary enforcement." Id.

However, these limitations do nothing to cure the problem. As Judge Baker observed in his dissent, the first "limiting factor" begs the question "what is mental health?" Without knowing what is meant by mental health, the requirement that one intentionally commit an act designed to substantially harm the mental health of another does not tell us what that act might be. In like manner, that the act must be committed knowingly or maliciously does nothing to define the nature of the act. Nor does the fact that the threat must be intended to cause harm to "mental health" tell us anything about the meaning of "mental health." Nor does the reasonableness of the listener's fear supply that missing link either.

The state argues by combining the definitions of "mental" and "health" one can conclude "mental health" means "a state whereby one's mind is free from disease or defect and functions normally." Williams, 98 Wash.App. at 773, 991 P.2d 107. Even if we were to adopt this definition as our own we would still be endorsing an inherently subjective standard. In Lorang we noted, "This court has invalidated criminal laws for vagueness when they are overly subjective." Lorang, 140 Wash.2d at 31, 992 P.2d 496. We there observed:

"What is forbidden by the due process clause are criminal statutes that contain no standards and allow police officers, judge, and jury to subjectively decide what conduct the statute proscribes or what conduct will comply with a statute in any given case. Thus ... we struck down statutes containing inherently subjective terms such as loiter or wander, wanders and prowls with unlawful purpose, [and] lawful excuse."

Id. (alteration in original) (quoting State v. Maciolek, 101 Wash.2d 259, 267, 676 P.2d 996 (1984)).

As in Lorang, the statute here offers law enforcement "no guide beyond the subjective impressions of the person responding to a citizen complaint." Lorang, 140 Wash.2d at 31, 992 P.2d 496. Similarly the average citizen has no way of knowing what conduct is prohibited by the statute because each person's perception of what constitutes the mental health of another will differ based on each person's subjective impressions. To avoid this quandary is the very reason the vagueness doctrine exists. We agree this statute is unconstitutionally vague to the extent it references mental health.


Williams also...

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