Rule of Lenity: Innocent by Default
Ambiguous legal rulings and unclear terminology are not just a source of confusion; they can also cause problems in legal cases and affect the dispensation of justice. The vast and complex nature of the modern legal system leads to many situations where people may be prosecuted for actions that they did not know were illegal. The rule of lenity was introduced to counteract the effects of ambiguous and confusing laws.
What is the Rule of Lenity?
The rule of lenity is used in cases where ambiguous laws have allegedly been violated. This rule stipulates that these ambiguous or unclear laws should be interpreted in favor of the person violating them.
The rule of lenity is used to ensure that everyone receives their constitutionally guaranteed right to due process. If a law is sufficiently unclear, then it is believed that a person could not be reasonably expected to know that their actions were illegal when they violated the ambiguous law. Therefore, that person should not be subjected to the punishments for violating that law.
The rule of lenity is used often in cases of environmental law. Many environmental laws use ambiguous terminology to describe the type of protections that are being enforced. For example, some laws may be used to prevent certain behaviors in protected wetlands. However, the term “wetlands” may not be clearly defined. This means that a person could be engaging in an illegal action without having any way of knowing that they are on what the government considers “wetlands.”
Ambiguous laws violate due process by providing punishments for people that had no way of knowing that their actions are illegal. It is possible that prison time and fines could be imposed for actions that were not clearly defined as crimes. The rule of lenity was established to prevent this kind of legal ambiguity by insisting that only Congress, not the courts, should have the ability to define what is and is not criminal activity.