Posts tagged with "unconstitutionally vague"

Definition of “Public Housing Project” Adequately Defined for Purposes of Drug Distribution Statute

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

In a criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut rejected a defendant’s attacks on the statutory definition of “public housing project” for purposes of State narcotics distribution statutes.

Case Background

This case arose from an incident that occurred on September 13, 2007. Police officers went to the defendant’s residence to execute a valid search and seizure warrant related to narcotics activity. When officers identified themselves, the defendant ran inside and locked the door. Once the officers gained entry using a battering ram, they heard a toilet flush and saw the defendant leaving the bathroom. The defendant refused to comply with orders and resisted officer attempts to place him under arrest. Officers discovered two rocks of crack cocaine and assorted pills, digital scales, plastic baggies used in the packaging of drugs, and in excess of $1,400 cash.

The defendant was charged with and convicted of possession of cocaine, possession of narcotics with intent to sell within 1500 feet of a housing project, and interfering with an officer. On appeal, he claimed that the State did not present sufficient evidence establishing nearby residential housing as a public housing project.

Defendant Contests Classification as a “Public Housing Project”

Under Connecticut General Statutes § 21a-278a(b), a person is prohibited from transporting or possessing with the intent to sell or dispense controlled substances within fifteen-hundred feet of a designated public housing project. Pursuant to this statute, public housing project means “dwelling accommodations operated as a state or federally subsidized multi-family housing project by a housing authority, nonprofit corporation or municipal developer.”

At trial, one officer testified that the residential housing was “a federally subsidized, elderly/disabled housing complex” that was run by the city’s housing authority. Another officer explained that the neighborhood was “an elderly apartment complex owned and operated by the [city’s] Housing Authority.” In stark contrast, nothing on the record suggested that the property in question was “anything other than a public housing project.” Therefore, the defendant’s claim failed.

Defendant Claims Unconstitutional Vagueness

The defendant further contested that the statute’s definition of “public housing project” was unconstitutionally vague. To prevail on a void for vagueness claim, the defendant has to show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that “[he] had inadequate notice of what was prohibited or that [he was] the victim of arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” A defendant need only prove one or the other, not both.

The Appellate Court disagreed with this challenge, stating that the statutory definition “by its plain terms, afforded the defendant notice that the statute applied to public housing projects where elderly or disabled people reside.” Particularly telling, it pointed out that the statute doesn’t require the prosecution to show that the defendant knew he was within fifteen-hundred feet at the time of the narcotics transaction. Therefore, the defendant failed to prove that a constitutional violation had taken place.

When faced with a charge for possession or distribution of controlled substances, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-211-3100 or at

Defendant Could Not “Claim Surprise” By Kidnapping Arrest and Conviction; Statute Not Unconstitutionally Vague

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

A previous article on this website described how the defendant failed to convince the Appellate Court that the State did not prove he intentionally prevented a kidnapping victim’s liberation. Another aspect of his appeal concerned whether or not the kidnapping statute, as applied to the facts of his case, met the standards for unconstitutional vagueness.

What is a “Void for Vagueness” Challenge?

The essence of a “void for vagueness” challenge is that a person must have fair warning regarding what conduct constitutes a violation of a statute and the guarantee that the statute will not be applied arbitrarily by law enforcement officials. Thus, for a defendant to prevail on this claim, he must show beyond a reasonable doubt either that he had inadequate notice of what conduct was prohibited or was subject to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.

The Supreme Court of Connecticut has previously conceded that there are rare cases where a conviction for kidnapping “would constitute an absurd and unconscionable result because of the limited duration of the confinement or the slight degree of restriction in movement.” At the same time, however, there is no bright-line rule outlining the minimum time or distance requirements constituting a restraint. This concept, in conjunction with the statutory prohibition on restraint as outlined in § 53a-94a, ultimately defeated the defendant’s claim.

The Court’s Ruling

The Appellate Court acknowledged that the restraint in this case was brief, but due to the defendant’s evidenced intent to prevent the victim from leaving, he could not claim that he did not know that his actions were criminal. As the Court emphasized, he “cannot claim surprise that he would be arrested, prosecuted and convicted of the crime of kidnapping.”

Furthermore, the defendant presented no evidence that at the time of the incident he was acting on a good faith reliance that his conduct was lawful, or “that a person of ordinary intelligence would have no reason to know that he was engaging in prohibited conduct.” Therefore, the Court rejected the defendant’s claim that § 53a-94a was unconstitutionally vague as it applied to these facts.

When faced with a charge of kidnapping or unlawful restraint, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at

When ATVs are Driven on Public Highways, They Are “Motor Vehicles” for Purposes of State Suspension Laws

In a recent criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut affirmed a trial court’s revocation of a defendant’s probation after he operated his all-terrain vehicle (ATV) on public roads while his driver’s license was suspended.

In this case, the defendant pled guilty to driving under the influence as a third-time offender. He was sentenced to three years’ incarceration, execution suspended after one year, with three years’ probation. The following conditions of probation were imposed: a general condition prohibiting the violation of any state criminal statute, and a special condition prohibiting the operation of a motor vehicle with a suspended license. The Department of Motor Vehicles permanently suspended the defendant’s driver’s license due to his history of suspensions. The defendant served the one unsuspended year in jail, then began his probation. Before the term expired, he received two criminal citations after he operated an ATV in the travel lanes of town roads. Therefore, he was subsequently charged with operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license in violation of CGS § 14-215, as well as violation of probation.

A probation revocation hearing was held, where the trial court determined that the defendant violated the general and special conditions. His probation was revoked, and he was ordered to serve the remaining two years of his suspended sentence. The defendant appealed, arguing that CGS § 14-215(c) was unconstitutionally vague with respect to application to ATV usage. As he emphasized, “a person of ordinary intelligence could not reasonably have been expected to know that the term ‘motor vehicle’ included an ATV.”

Everyone is presumed to know the law, and ignorance is no excuse from criminal punishment. However, laws must be drafted so that “ordinary people understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” So long as the meaning of the statute can be fairly ascertained, it won’t be struck down as void for vagueness. In this case, the burden rested with the defendant to “demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that [CGS § 14-215(c)], as applied to him, deprived him of adequate notice of what conduct the statute proscribed or that he fell victim to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”

CGS § 14-215(c) makes it a crime for a person to operate a motor vehicle while their driver’s license is under suspension. This statute is located in Chapter 248, which defines “motor vehicle” as including “all vehicles used on public highways.” In CGS § 14-212(9), “vehicle” is synonymous with “motor vehicle,” so the Supreme Court opined that if an ATV qualifies as a vehicle, it is a motor vehicle for purposes of the suspension law. The Court considered the definitions of ATV under other statutes, which use the language “a self-propelled vehicle” and “motorized vehicle.” CGS §§ 14-379 and 23-26a. Thus, for purposes of CGS § 14-215(c), an ATV was a motor vehicle when used on a public highway.

With this statutory framework in mind, the Supreme Court determined that the defendant failed to meet his burden. Rather, CGS § 14-215(c) “affords a person of ordinary intelligence with fair warning that he is prohibited from operating an ATV on a public highway while his license is suspended.” The Court found that the statute was not unconstitutionally vague, and the trial court did not err in revoking the defendant’s probation.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or operation under suspension, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.