Lambert v. California
355 U.S. 225 (1957)

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  • Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225 (1957)

Lambert v. California

No. 47

Argued April 3, 1957

Restored to the docket for reargument June 3, 1957

Reargued October 16-17, 1957

Decided December 16, 1957

355 U.S. 225

Syllabus

A Los Angeles municipal ordinance makes it an offense for a person who has been convicted of a crime punishable in California as a felony to remain in the City or more than five days without registering with the Chief of Police. On appeal from a conviction for failure to register,

Held: when applied to a person who.has no actual knowledge of his duty to register, and where no showing is made of the probability of such knowledge, this ordinance violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 355 U. S. 226-230.

Reversed.

Page 355 U. S. 226

Primary Holding
A person cannot be punished for a notice offense unless it is probable that he or she knew or had reason to know of the law before engaging in criminal conduct.
Facts
Under Los Angeles Municipal Code Section 52.39, no convicted felon could stay in the city for more than five days without registering. Lambert, a convicted forger, stayed in Los Angeles for seven years without registering. She was convicted of violating the ordinance, even though she claimed that she was unaware of it. On appeal, she argued that due process under the Fourteenth Amendment required the ordinance to include some mental state element.

Opinions

Majority

  • William Orville Douglas (Author)
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Earl Warren
  • Tom C. Clark
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.

The prosecution would need to provide circumstantial evidence showing that the defendant should have been aware of the possibility that registration was required. There was no such evidence in this case, so the defendant did not have the opportunity to refrain from violating the law. Due process requires notice unless the defendant has actual knowledge of the ordinance that has been violated.

Dissent

  • Felix Frankfurter (Author)
  • John Marshall Harlan II
  • Charles Evans Whittaker

A mistake of law is usually not a defense to a crime. For example, a person may be convicted of drug possession even if he or she did not know that the particular substance was illegal. The penalty in this case, probation or a fine, is not grossly disproportionate to the offense such that it violates the Eighth Amendment.

Dissent

  • Harold Hitz Burton (Author)

Case Commentary

This is a very rare example of when mistake of law is a criminal defense, and it should not be extended too far. This is effective only when there is a failure to act that happens in a situation when there are no circumstances that would make the defendant think that there was a need to act. Mistake of law is only available when a crime is highly technical and the behavior is not intuitively wrongful according to prevailing norms of morality.

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