Vagueness Attacks on Searches and Seizures

Article — Volume 107, Issue 2

107 Va. L. Rev. 347
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*For helpful comments and consultations, I am grateful to Josh Bowers, Adam Crews, Dan Epps, Carissa Byrne Hessick, Orin Kerr, Peter Low, Daniel Rice, and Kannon Shanmugam. I am also grateful for the assistance of Matthew Cunningham, Rachael Jones, Tiffany Mickel, and the rest of the editors on the Virginia Law Review.Show More


The void-for-vagueness doctrine promises to promote the rule of law by ensuring that crimes are defined with sufficient definiteness to preclude indefensible and unpredictable applications. But the doctrine fails to fulfill that promise with respect to many low-level crimes. Those crimes are beyond the reach of the vagueness doctrine because they rarely, if ever, serve as the basis for charges in a criminal case that is seriously litigated.1.See infra Part II.Show More It is not that these low-level crimes have no use. Police use them all the time to justify stops and arrests, which can lead to searches that uncover evidence of more serious crimes. But when charges are brought for the more serious offenses, vagueness attacks have not been allowed when aimed at the low-level crimes on which the searches and seizures were predicated.2.See Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31, 40 (1979).Show More

The thinking has been that an officer does not violate the Fourth Amendment when making a good-faith search or seizure, supported by adequate individualized suspicion, for a suspected violation of a low-level crime not yet judicially invalidated at the time of arrest. The inquiry is primarily factual in the sense that it concerns only the information available to the officer at the time of arrest. That is, the arresting officer is not expected to speculate or anticipate that the law will be struck down in the future. If the fact of invalidation did not occur before the arrest, it cannot be used to undermine it.3.See id. at 37–38.Show More

This rationale has obvious appeal. It makes sense not to expect officers to make legal determinations about the constitutional validity of a law before enforcing it; that task would seem better suited for judges. But application of the rule comes at a significant cost. Many of the low-level offenses used to justify stops and arrests perpetually evade judicial review.

Consider the following scenario: An officer arrests an individual pursuant to a city loitering ordinance that makes it unlawful for a person to refuse to identify himself at an officer’s request. The officer conducts a search incident to arrest, which reveals a gun. The individual is later charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. If the defendant were to move to suppress the gun on the ground that it was discovered during a search predicated on an ordinance that is unconstitutionally vague, the court would deny the motion without ever addressing the vagueness question; the court would conclude that it need not reach that question because the officer was entitled to rely on the ordinance, which had not been invalidated at the time of arrest. That conclusion leaves the low-level crime just as it was—unreviewed and available for future use by police. The same sequence can and does occur repeatedly, insulating low-level crimes from vagueness challenges.

This Article explores that problem and argues that a solution is hiding in plain sight. It challenges the notion that a defendant may not successfully lodge vagueness attacks on searches and seizures in light of two Supreme Court decisions decided during the same Term—Johnson v. United States4.576 U.S. 591 (2015).Show More and Heien v. North Carolina.5.574 U.S. 54 (2014).Show More As I will explain, the two cases, especially Heien, lay the groundwork for solving the insulation problem just described.

The defect in many vague statutes is that they are so open-ended that they effectively allow the police to observe conduct, define the content of the crime to cover it, and then make an arrest based on probable cause that the arrestee committed the newly invented crime. That violates due process to the extent it permits officers to enforce a criminal statute in a way that is unexpected and indefensible in light of the text of the law being enforced and any relevant legal sources that bear on that text’s interpretation.6.See infra Section I.A.Show More

The Supreme Court’s decision in Heien gives officers enforcing indefinite laws some leeway when applying them. Their interpretations of the laws may be mistaken so long as they are objectively reasonable. This inquiry is purely legal or analytical. The government must be able to point to something in the text of the law or other relevant sources that affirmatively supports the officer’s interpretation; it may not simply note the absence of a judicial decision foreclosing the officer’s view of the law. As Justice Kagan explained in her concurrence in Heien, the government must show that “a reasonable judge could [have] agree[d] with the officer’s view” in light of the relevant legal sources.7.Heien, 574 U.S. at 70 (Kagan, J., concurring).Show More

It follows that a mistaken interpretation is unreasonable—and therefore a Fourth Amendment violation—when no reasonable judge could have adopted it in light of the statutory text and available legal materials bearing on the meaning of that text. That is essentially the same claim made when a defendant argues that the law under which he was arrested is unconstitutionally vague—that the law was so open-ended that it permitted an officer to interpret and apply it in a way that was unpredictable and indefensible in light of the law that had been stated at the time. In this way, the framework of Heien opens the door to vagueness attacks on searches and seizures.

The Article proceeds in four Parts. Part I sets the table by describing the content of the vagueness doctrine, the proliferation of low-level crimes that followed the invalidation of vagrancy statutes on vagueness grounds, and the longstanding rule that vagueness attacks may not be lodged successfully against laws serving merely as a basis for arrest. Part II explores the problem that longstanding rule has created, namely that countless low-level offenses are effectively insulated from judicial review on the vagueness question. Part III is the heart of the Article. It argues that Johnson and Heien provide the analytical architecture for successful vagueness attacks on searches and seizures in the context of a motion to suppress. Part IV then identifies potential obstacles to that theory—the prospect of narrowing constructions that cure otherwise vague statutes and the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule—but argues that they can ultimately be overcome.

The result is a coherent and defensible theory for raising vagueness challenges in the context of a motion to suppress. Again, the primary benefit of this theory is to ensure that even low-level crimes are reviewed for constitutional vagueness. But the theory is broadly applicable. It can be used for vagueness attacks on any crime, low-level or not, on which a search or seizure is premised.

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