Clarity in Criminal Law
55 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2016 Last revised: 18 May 2017
Date Written: September 14, 2016
Over the past thirty years, thousands of new federal criminal laws have been enacted, many of which are unclear and leave prosecutors and courts to now define the boundaries of the criminal code. Tolerating unclear laws in the criminal arena has always been problematic, but it is especially so in this era of overcriminalization and excessive punishment, where a lack of clarity can result in arbitrary application of criminal statutes and the sentencing consequences of a conviction are so severe. Although several justices have noted the lack of clarity in the criminal law, the Court as a whole has not fully reacted. This Article suggests what that reaction should be. It argues for a more robust review of unclear federal criminal laws, using amplified versions of two tools already at the Court’s disposal: the rule of lenity and void for vagueness doctrine. Employing those doctrines vigorously would, in effect, create a clear statement rule in criminal law.
Keywords: Criminal Procedure, Rule of Lenity, Void for Vagueness, Clear Statement Rule, Statutory Construction
JEL Classification: K14, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation