“Knife” Definition Declared Unconstitutionally Vague

Author: Emily Otte, Executive Comments Editor

State v. Harris, No. 116,515, (Kan. July 17, 2020)

Issue:  In Kansas, it is illegal for a convicted felon to possess a knife.  A knife is defined in Kan. Stat. Ann. 2019 Supp. 21-6304 as “a dagger, dirk, switchblade, stiletto, straight-edged razor or any other dangerous or deadly cutting instrument of like character.”  Is the phrase “or any other dangerous or deadly cutting instrument of like character” unconstitutionally vague?

Answer: Yes.  The phrase is unconstitutionally vague because it impermissibly delegates legislative power.

Facts: Christopher Harris was charged with criminal possession of a weapon by a convicted felon after he pulled out a pocketknife during an altercation.  Harris filed a motion to dismiss the charges, arguing the statutory definition of a knife was unconstitutionally vague. 

Discussion: A statute challenged for vagueness must meet Fourteenth Amendment due process requirements and nondelegation requirements.  The Court, focusing on the latter of those two requirements, stated, “the Legislature [must] not impermissibly delegate[] its authority to write the laws to officials or actors in either the executive or judicial branches of government.”  The United States Supreme Court has held that the legislature must establish minimal guidelines because vague, overbroad laws “threaten to hand responsibility for defining crimes to relatively unaccountable police, prosecutors, and judges, eroding the people’s ability to oversee the creation of the laws they are expected to abide.”  In this case, the statute does not provide a sufficiently objective standard by which enforcement officials can determine when an object is a dangerous or deadly cutting instrument.  The Court cited evidence of “subjectivity in action”: the Department of Corrections advised its parolees that the statute did not include pocket knives, an interpretation at odds with the prosecutors’ enforcement of the statute. 

Key Authorities:  Kan. Stat. Ann. 2019 Supp. 21-6304; City of Lincoln Center v. Farmway Co-Op, Inc., 316 P.3d 707 (Kan. 2013) (finding a city noise ordinance unconstitutionally vague because it lacked sufficient clarity); Sessions v. Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. 1204 (2018) (warning that the problem with laws that lack sufficient clarity is that the laws “invite arbitrary power”). 

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