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Rule of law takes on several meanings.

On one hand, it means that no person or government is above the law. In another, it means that no government or its officials can enforce laws that are unfair or unjust.

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Rule of Law Defined

Imagine you’re walking down the street, when suddenly the police come upon you, slap cuffs on and haul you downtown for no apparent reason. To your horror, you are charged with not having a specific destination! The police tell you that you are a vagrant and define this as a person who moves from place to place without a specific destination or monetary means.

You plead that you were just taking a walk. Yet, you find yourself in a world of trouble that seems to have no clear path of escape.Scary, huh? Well, to avoid incidents like this, the rule of law comes in pretty handy. It states that no person, government official or government entity is above the law. It also states that no law can be written that is either outside the law, violates a higher law or doesn’t conform with fairness.

Said a different way, laws and those who enforce them or are obligated by them must adhere to their meaning in the most impartial way. Laws and statutes must be clear enough that a reasonable person would be able to assess his own behavior to determine whether he is in violation of law.A very important case in Florida helped change the way courts look at laws that are either too vague or do not conform to what is fair. In fact, the case went on to be the pivotal move toward changing the face of vagrancy laws completely.

Let’s take a look at it.

Johnson v. State (1967)

In Johnson v. State, two men, one of whom was Harvey Johnson, were arrested for vagrancy.

At the time, vagrancy was considered a crime. To roam without a destination within Dade County, Florida, was considered vagrancy. (The example before doesn’t seem so hard to imagine now, does it?)Here are the facts of the case:

  • At approximately 4:30 AM, Harvey Johnson and a companion were sitting at a bus stop in a mixed residential/business neighborhood of Miami.
  • The officers questioned both parties’ whereabouts during the evening in question.
  • Both parties were able to recant that they had been at a movie theater and Harvey’s girlfriend’s house.
  • When questioned about their next destination, neither party was able to give details, but Harvey claimed to be waiting for a cab.

  • Police asked whether either party had sufficient funds; between both parties, they were able to produce around eighty cents.
  • Police arrested the parties for vagrancy.

And the statute reads like this:|856.

02 Vagrants. — Rogues and vagabonds, idle or dissolute persons who go about begging, common gamblers, persons who use juggling, or unlawful games or plays, common pipers and fiddlers, common drunkards, common night walkers, thieves, pilferers, traders in stolen property, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons, keepers of gambling places, common railers and brawlers, persons who neglect their calling or employment, or are without reasonably continuous employment or regular income and who have not sufficient property to sustain them, and misspend what they earn without providing for themselves or the support of their families, persons wandering or strolling around from place to place without any lawful purpose or object, habitual loafers, idle and disorderly persons, persons neglecting all lawful business and habitually spending their time by frequenting houses of ill fame, gaming houses or tippling shops, persons able to work but habitually living upon the earnings of their wives or minor children, and all able bodied male persons over the age of eighteen years who are without means of support and remain in idleness, shall be deemed vagrants, and upon conviction shall be subject to the penalty provided in § 856.03.

In a nutshell, Florida Statute, 856.02 Vagrants, states that any person who is a habitual loafer, with no means of support, or is idle amongst other things is considered a vagrant and therefore subject to arrest.The problem with this arrest was twofold:

  • The statute is vague.
  • There is a question of whether the statute violates a person’s rights.

Let’s break it down. Johnson and his companion committed no crime, per se. They were merely sitting at a bus stop.

It was not clear in the statute or even based on a reasonable person’s judgment that sitting at the bus stop was in violation of the law.Furthermore, the question of due process also comes into play. According to the Fifth Amendment, no citizen will be denied life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness without due process, and this means, in part, laws must be written in a clear way so that any person being charged with a crime understands the behaviors that led to the arrest.In Johnson’s case, the police never questioned whether he was employed or had means of support. The question asked by police only referred to the sum of money he had with him at the time of the questioning.Furthermore, although Johnson was sitting on a bench in the middle of the night without a plan for his destination, it’s vague as to whether this set a pattern of idleness or wandering. It could be that this was Johnson’s first incidence of sitting on a bench in the middle of the night.

In the end, the appellate court judges determined that the language of the statute was vague and difficult to apply based on the evidence and testimony of both the plaintiff and the officer.You see, the rule of law in this case can be used to refute the charges. The statute as it related to the evidence in the case was not on point. The statute was vague.

A reasonable person would not have known in advance that the behavior would be considered illegal. The fact of the matter is that people walk around without cash or without a specific destination. But not all of them are vagrants.

Lesson Summary

To recap, rule of law states that no person, government official or government entity is above the law. It also states that no law can be written that is either outside the law, violates a higher law or doesn’t conform with fairness.

This means laws and those who enforce them or are obligated by them must adhere to their meaning in the most impartial way. Laws and statutes must be also clear and on point, enough so that a reasonable person would know that he or she is breaking the law.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve completed this lesson, you should have the ability to:

  • Explain what the rule of law is
  • Describe the facts and holding of Johnson v. State (1967)
  • Summarize how that case had an important impact on the concept of rule of law

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