State v. Holbach: Facts, Decision, & Significance

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
Due process requires that before people are locked up, they should have their day in court to ensure that their rights are considered. In this lesson, we will learn how due process applies to defendants who are deemed incompetent to strand trial.

You Say Stalking, I say Walking

If Jack is ordered by the court not to be within 500 feet of Jill, is it fair to Jack that Jill drives by him walking down the road and then gets him busted for violating the protection order? Doesn't he have a right to walk down a street? This is the issue the North Dakota Supreme Court faced in State v. Holbach (2009).

Facts of the Case

Mitchell Holbach stalked and harassed Joy Dixon, and police arrested him and charged him with one count of misdemeanor stalking. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served and two years' probation. He was also ordered not to get within 500 feet of Dixon and to have no contact with her.

During the next few months, Dixon reported seeing Holbach at various places around town. Sometimes he'd be at a corner gas station watching her as she drove by. Another time he was parked alongside the road watching her as she drove by. She would spot him stopped at a stop sign watching her, and on one occasion, he walked out in front of her as she drove by him, and he took her picture.

The trial court revoked Holbach's probation and sent him to 167 days in jail finding that he had violated the restraining order on several occasions by coming within 500 feet of Dixon. After serving his time, he stalked Dixon again. In one particularly frightening incident, Dixon watched as Holbach drove past her and pulled a U-turn and followed her. She called the police who told her to come to the police substation. When she got there, Holbach was already there waiting for her.

Police arrested Holbach and charged him with one count of stalking and two counts of disobeying a judge's order. The trial court found him guilty, and Holbach made a motion to the court to determine whether his activity was constitutionally protected. He also challenged the constitutionality of the stalking statute as being vague and ambiguous. The trial court denied his motions, and Holbach appealed to the North Dakota Supreme Court.

Issue and Decision

The North Dakota Supreme Court was asked whether the activities for which Holbach had been found guilty of stalking were constitutionally protected and whether the stalking statute violated his due process rights under the Constitution. The North Dakota Supreme Court held that his activities were not constitutionally protected and the statute did not violate his due process rights.

The Fifth and 14th amendments' due process clause requires that before a person can be found guilty of a crime, his or her constitutional rights must be considered in a fair hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court in Connally v. General Construction Co. (1926), held that if a law is vague, it violates a person's due process rights. This is called the vagueness doctrine, and it requires that a law must explicitly and definitely state what conduct is punishable.

This doctrine serves two purposes:

  1. All persons receive fair notice of what is punishable and what is not.
  2. This prevents arbitrary and unfair enforcement of the laws and arbitrary prosecutions.

The North Dakota Supreme Court looked at both issues. First, in addressing the constitutionality of Holbach's activities, the court acknowledged that Holbach had the right of travel and to engage in normal daily activities. However, his judicially ordered restrictions came about through the trial process during which the court made findings to justify its decision, and the restrictions placed on his travel and other activities were reasonable given the danger to Dixon.

Second, the North Dakota Supreme Court looked at the charge that the stalking law was unconstitutionally vague and thus violated his Fifth and 14th amendments' due process rights. The court looked at its previous ruling in its state's case law and stated, ''A statute is not unconstitutionally vague if the challenged language, when measured by common understanding and practice, gives adequate warning of the conduct proscribed and marks boundaries sufficiently distinct for fair administration of the law.''

The court looked at the language of the talking law, which states, ''Stalking is an intentional course of conduct directed at a specific person which frightens, intimidates, or harasses that person, and that serves no legitimate purpose.'' Its conclusion was that the law gave Holbach adequate notice and warning of the prohibited activities, and as such did not violate his due process rights.

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