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State v. Caez

Decided: November 25, 1963.

THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
PEDRO CAEZ, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Gaulkin, Foley and Lewis. The opinion of the court was delivered by Gaulkin, S.j.a.d.

Gaulkin

Defendant was convicted of "loitering," in violation of an ordinance of the City of Hackensack, and he appeals.

Defendant argues that the evidence did not justify a finding of guilt, and that, in any event, the section of the ordinance under which he was found guilty is so vague and indefinite as to be invalid. We agree with defendant on both counts.

Officer Scott was the city's only witness. He stated that on October 5, 1962, at about 6 P.M., he observed defendant standing at the corner of Main and Bergen Streets, together with five other men. While seated in his patrol car, he ordered them to "break it up." When they did not move, he parked the car and got out. Upon approaching the group, four left the corner and walked away. Defendant and another person remained standing on the sidewalk.

Scott said the sidewalk was about five to six feet wide and that defendant and his companion stood in the middle of it as they conversed. He said to them: "You fellows are going to have to move off this corner," but they did not move. Instead, defendant said to the officer that he was "just talking with his friends and that he didn't have to move." Scott then placed defendant, but not his companion, under arrest. Scott

admitted that when he parked his car only defendant and his friend were on the sidewalk, and that pedestrians were able to pass the two men while they were standing on the sidewalk. Defendant testified that he was on his way to the store when he saw two of his friends and stopped to talk to them. He insisted that there were never more than three people in the group, and it was stipulated at the trial that two witnesses were present in court who would corroborate defendant's testimony if called to the stand.

The ordinance provided, in article II (5), that "No person shall loiter, lounge or sleep in or upon any street, park or public place; or in any public building; or obstruct the access to any public building or any part thereof; or obstruct passage through or upon any public street, park or public place." The ordinance did not define the word "loiter," or set forth any standard by which it could be determined that one was loitering.

The complaint filed in the municipal court charged that defendant "did loiter and lounge in the vicinity of Main and Bridge [ sic ] streets, public streets in the City of Hackensack, and did obstruct the passage of the public sidewalk at Main and Bridge [ sic ] streets * * *." The record before us does not reveal whether defendant was found guilty in the municipal court of obstructing "the passage of a public sidewalk," as well as loitering. However, upon trial de novo in the County Court, he was found guilty only of "loitering," which means, in legal effect, that he was acquitted (correctly, we think) of the charge of obstructing the sidewalk. The County Court remitted the $50 fine which had been imposed in the municipal court, and imposed only "$5.00 cost of court."

We begin with the fundamental proposition that no ordinance may unreasonably or unnecessarily interfere with a person's freedom, whether it be to move about or to stand still. Territory of Hawaii v. Anduha , 48 F.2d 171 (9 Cir. 1931); City of St. Louis v. Gloner , 210 Mo. 502, 109 S.W. 30, 15 L.R.A., N.S. , 973 (Sup. Ct. 1908); Pinkerton v.

Verberg , 78 Mich. 573, 44 N.W. 579, 7 L.R.A. 507 (Sup. Ct. 1889). An ordinance which proposes to restrict such freedom must contain standards which make it reasonable and prevent arbitrary enforcement. "It is offensive to fundamental concepts of justice and violative of due process of law * * * to impose sanctions for violations of laws whose language is doubtful, vague and uncertain." Maplewood v. Tannenhaus , 64 N.J. Super. 80, 89 (App. Div. 1960). Penal laws must be clear enough so that "* * * all men subject to their penalties may know what acts it is their duty to avoid * * * Before a man can be punished, his case must be plainly and unmistakably within the statute." State v. Gaynor , 119 N.J.L. 582, 584 (E. & A. 1937).

What does "loiter" mean? If it be argued that for lawyers, and for some purposes in the law, the term "loiter" has by usage acquired a certain meaning, "it does not follow that by itself, and without more, such term is enough to inform a citizen of its criminal implications * * *." People v. Diaz ...


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