Clarity in Criminal Law

55 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2016 Last revised: 1 Aug 2019

See all articles by Shon Hopwood

Shon Hopwood

Georgetown University Law Center

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

Hopwood, Shon R., Clarity in Criminal Law (September 14, 2016). 54 AM. CRIM. L. REV. 695 (2017), Available at SSRN:

Shon R. Hopwood (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
2026629559 (Phone)

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