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What Is the Rule of Law? - Definition & Principle

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  • 0:07 Rule of Law Defined
  • 1:32 Johnson V. State (1967)
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

Rule of law takes on several meanings. On one hand, it means that no person or government is above the law. In another, it means that no government or its officials can enforce laws that are unfair or unjust.

Rule of Law Defined

Imagine you're walking down the street, when suddenly the police come upon you, slap cuffs on and haul you downtown for no apparent reason. To your horror, you are charged with not having a specific destination! The police tell you that you are a vagrant and define this as a person who moves from place to place without a specific destination or monetary means. You plead that you were just taking a walk. Yet, you find yourself in a world of trouble that seems to have no clear path of escape.

Scary, huh? Well, to avoid incidents like this, the rule of law comes in pretty handy. It states that no person, government official or government entity is above the law. It also states that no law can be written that is either outside the law, violates a higher law or doesn't conform with fairness.

Said a different way, laws and those who enforce them or are obligated by them must adhere to their meaning in the most impartial way. Laws and statutes must be clear enough that a reasonable person would be able to assess his own behavior to determine whether he is in violation of law.

A very important case in Florida helped change the way courts look at laws that are either too vague or do not conform to what is fair. In fact, the case went on to be the pivotal move toward changing the face of vagrancy laws completely. Let's take a look at it.

Johnson v. State (1967)

In Johnson v. State, two men, one of whom was Harvey Johnson, were arrested for vagrancy. At the time, vagrancy was considered a crime. To roam without a destination within Dade County, Florida, was considered vagrancy. (The example before doesn't seem so hard to imagine now, does it?)

Here are the facts of the case:

  • At approximately 4:30 AM, Harvey Johnson and a companion were sitting at a bus stop in a mixed residential/business neighborhood of Miami.
  • The officers questioned both parties' whereabouts during the evening in question.
  • Both parties were able to recant that they had been at a movie theater and Harvey's girlfriend's house.
  • When questioned about their next destination, neither party was able to give details, but Harvey claimed to be waiting for a cab.
  • Police asked whether either party had sufficient funds; between both parties, they were able to produce around eighty cents.
  • Police arrested the parties for vagrancy.

And the statute reads like this:

|856.02 Vagrants. -- Rogues and vagabonds, idle or dissolute persons who go about begging, common gamblers, persons who use juggling, or unlawful games or plays, common pipers and fiddlers, common drunkards, common night walkers, thieves, pilferers, traders in stolen property, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons, keepers of gambling places, common railers and brawlers, persons who neglect their calling or employment, or are without reasonably continuous employment or regular income and who have not sufficient property to sustain them, and misspend what they earn without providing for themselves or the support of their families, persons wandering or strolling around from place to place without any lawful purpose or object, habitual loafers, idle and disorderly persons, persons neglecting all lawful business and habitually spending their time by frequenting houses of ill fame, gaming houses or tippling shops, persons able to work but habitually living upon the earnings of their wives or minor children, and all able bodied male persons over the age of eighteen years who are without means of support and remain in idleness, shall be deemed vagrants, and upon conviction shall be subject to the penalty provided in § 856.03.

In a nutshell, Florida Statute, 856.02 Vagrants, states that any person who is a habitual loafer, with no means of support, or is idle amongst other things is considered a vagrant and therefore subject to arrest.

The problem with this arrest was twofold:

  • The statute is vague.
  • There is a question of whether the statute violates a person's rights.

Let's break it down. Johnson and his companion committed no crime, per se. They were merely sitting at a bus stop. It was not clear in the statute or even based on a reasonable person's judgment that sitting at the bus stop was in violation of the law.

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