Within the Statute

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Encompassed by, or included under, the provisions and scope of a particular law.

In the U.S. legal system, a person who is charged with violating a statute must have committed actions that are specifically addressed in the law. When a person's actions comport with the language of the law, the actions are said to be "within the statute."

Troublesome questions arise, however, when a statute is too general or not specific enough in providing information on the proscribed acts. For example, vagrancy laws were used to arrest and detain persons the police believed had or were about to commit crimes. A person could be arrested for having no permanent address or for moving "aimlessly" through the streets. In Papachristou v. Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 92 S. Ct. 839, 31 L. Ed. 2d 110 (1972), however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Florida vagrancy statute was unconstitutional because it was too vague to be understood. The Court emphasized that a person cannot avoid engaging in criminal conduct, if prior to engaging in it, he cannot determine that the conduct is forbidden by law.

In criminal law, the courts apply the rule of lenity to deal with ambiguities in criminal statutes. The general rule is that an ambiguity in a criminal statute should be resolved in favor of the defendant. Therefore, a court will choose the more lenient interpretation in determining the punishment.


Void for Vagueness Doctrine.