Appellant, who had been seen to drive his car late at night from
a parking lot and discharge a female at an apartment house, park on
the street, and use a two-way radio, and who thereafter gave the
police multiple addresses and denied knowledge of his friend's
identity, was convicted of violating the Euclid; Ohio, "suspicious
person ordinance," which makes it a crime to (1) wander about the
streets or be abroad at late or unusual hours; (2) be at the time
without visible or lawful business; and (3) fail satisfactorily to
explain one's presence on the streets. His conviction was upheld on
The ordinance is unconstitutionally vague as
applied to appellant, since it gave insufficient notice that
appellant's conduct in the parked car or in discharging his
passenger was enough to show him to be "without visible or lawful
Appellant Palmer was convicted by a jury of violating the City
of Euclid's "suspicious person ordinance," that is, of being
"[a]ny person who wanders about the streets or other public ways
or who is found abroad at late or unusual hours in the night
without any visible or lawful business and who does not give
satisfactory account of himself."
He was fined $50 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The County
Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment, and appeal to the Supreme
Court of Ohio was dismissed "for
Page 402 U. S. 545
the reason that no substantial constitutional question exists
herein." We noted probable jurisdiction. 397 U.S. 1073 (1970).
We reverse the judgment against Palmer because the ordinance is
so vague and lacking in ascertainable standards of guilt that, as
applied to Palmer, it failed to give "a person of ordinary
intelligence fair notice that his contemplated conduct is
forbidden. . . ." United States v. Harriss, 347 U.
, 347 U. S. 617
The elements of the crime defined by the ordinance apparently
are (1) wandering about the streets or being abroad at late or
unusual hours; (2) being at the time without visible or lawful
and (3) failing
to give a satisfactory explanation for his presence on the streets.
Palmer, in his car, was seen late at night in a parking lot. A
female left his car and entered by the front door an adjoining
apartment house. Palmer then pulled onto the street, parked with
his lights on, and used a two-way radio. He was not armed. He said
he had just let off a friend. He was then arrested. At the station,
he gave three different addresses for himself, and said he did not
know his friend's name or where she was going when she left his
car. Palmer could reasonably be charged with knowing that he was on
the streets at a late or unusual hour and that denying knowledge of
his friend's identity and claiming multiple addresses amounted to
an unsatisfactory explanation under the ordinance. But, in our
view, the ordinance gave insufficient notice to the average person
Page 402 U. S. 546
a friend at an apartment house and then talking on a car radio
while parked on the street was enough to show him to be "without
any visible or lawful business." Insofar as this record reveals,
everything appellant did was quite visible, and there is no
suggestion whatsoever that what he did was unlawful under local,
state, or federal law. If his conduct nevertheless satisfied the
"being without visible or lawful business" element of the
ordinance, as the state courts must have held, it is quite
unreasonable, in our view, to charge him with notice that such
would be the construction of the ordinance.
"The underlying principle is that no man shall be held
criminally responsible for conduct which he could not reasonably
understand to be proscribed."
United States v. Harriss, supra,
at 347 U. S. 617
Bouie v. Columbia, 378 U. S. 347
(1964); Wright v. Georgia, 373 U.
The judgment of the Supreme Court of Ohio is reversed.
It is so ordered.
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN concurs in the result.
* The ordinance seemingly requires a "business" purpose to be on
the streets. But it seems irrational to construe the ordinance as
permitting only visible and lawful commercial activities on the
streets, thus in effect converting the ordinance into a curfew with
exceptions for lawful commercial conduct. Neither the lower court
nor appellee city suggests that the ordinance should be construed
in this manner or that anyone would expect that it would be so
MR. JUSTICE STEWART, with whom MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS joins,
While I agree with the Court that Euclid's "suspicious person
ordinance" is unconstitutional as applied to the appellant, I would
go further and hold that the ordinance is unconstitutionally vague
on its face.
A policeman has a duty to investigate suspicious circumstances,
and the circumstance of a person wandering the streets late at
night without apparent lawful business may often present the
occasion for police inquiry. But, in my view, government does not
have constitutional power to make that circumstance, without more,
a criminal offense.