Wednesday, August 17, 2016
The Seventh Circuit ruled this week that language in a state statute criminalizing the possession of cocaine near a "youth program center" was unconstitutionally vague. The ruling sends this case of hyper-aggressive prosecution back for resentencing (though the criminal law has been repealed).
The case arose when police arrested Walker Whatley at his father's home on an unrelated charge. The officer discovered a bag with just over three grams of cocaine in Whatley's pocket. Ordinarily, this would have constituted a Class C felony under state law, with a sentence of two to eight years. But because Whatley's dad lived 795 feet from the Robinson Community Church, Whatley was charged with a Class A felony of possessing more than three grams of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a "youth program center"--a charge that brought 20 to 50 years. Whatley was convicted and got 35 years--more than four times the maximum sentence for a Class C felony.
Whatley appealed through the state courts, and then brought a federal habeas claim. The district court rejected that claim, however, ruling that Whatley defaulted.
The Seventh Circuit reversed. The court ruled that the statute was unconstitutionally vague, because it defined "youth program center" as a facility with "regular" youth programs, and because "regular" didn't put a person of ordinary intelligence on notice of what was illegal. (The church hosted youth programs, but only a few times a week, and only for a few hours at a time.)
The court rejected the state court's reasoning that fair notice wasn't required, because the statute created strict liability; the court said that reasoning was "inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent that requires fair notice for all criminal statutes." "The lack of an intent element in the statute does not cure the vagueness problem; it makes it worse by making unknowing defendants absolutely liable for violating an indeterminate standard," that is, the definition of "youth program center."
The very harsh sentencing also played a factor:
In sum, a triad of factors convince us that the state courts were not simply wrong but unreasonable in applying federal law on vagueness in Whatley's case: (1) the use of the word "regular" in the definition of "youth program center" provides no objective standard, and thereby fails to place persons of ordinary intelligence on notice of the conduct proscribed and allows for arbitrary enforcement; (2) defendants are strictly liable for violating the terms of this nebulous sentencing enhancement, exacerbating the effect of the subjectivity; and (3) the consequences of violating this indeterminate strict liability provision are extreme: an increase in the sentencing range from 2-to-8 years to 20-to-50 years' imprisonment.