For the past several years, I have asked the following question on my Law and Policy midterm examination:
Town officials in Whitebread, Indiana, became concerned by the number of “undesirables” who were “hanging out” in Whitebread. They passed an ordinance against loitering, defined as “Three or more persons congregating in a manner annoying to passersby.” Is this ordinance enforceable? Why or why not?
The correct answer is that the ordinance is unenforceable, because its language is unconstitutionally vague. What is “annoying” is very subjective–what annoys me may not bother you at all. The rule of law requires far more specificity–any statute, to be enforceable, must be sufficiently clear and specific to allow citizens to know what sorts of behaviors cross the line.
Most of my students answer this correctly. I discovered that Indiana’s lawmakers know less than my students when I read this about a challenge to our public intoxication law in the Indianapolis Star.
It takes more than just being drunk to get convicted of public intoxication in Indiana. The law says you also have to be annoying.
As the lawyer challenging the standard correctly pointed out, this language doesn’t tell the public what conduct may annoy another person.
“There needs to be some standard,” she told the justices, “so a person can read the law and know what (conduct) is prohibited.”
A three-judge panel from the court of appeals agreed when it found the “annoying” standard unconstitutionally vague.
The requirement that laws be sufficiently specific to allow citizens to understand what they can and cannot do is fundamental to the rule of law. Any of my former students could have told the General Assembly that “annoying” wasn’t a constitutionally-compliant standard.
I find it very annoying that Hoosier lawmakers evidently don’t know the most basic requirements of the constitution and rule of law.