Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 29, 2012

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A Rhode Island woman has challenged the constitutionality of a city law that prohibits residents from allowing their pets to create a “habitual howling, barking, or other noise.”  Lynne, L. Taylor was found to be in violation of the city law when her neighbor complained about a noisy, and profane, cockatoo that Ms. Taylor allows outside.

According to the neighbor, who also happens to be the girlfriend of Ms. Taylor’s ex-husband, the offending bird is constantly squawking profanities that are unfit to print (to hear a sample of the bird’s foul-mouthed barrage, check out the link to youtube videos in this ABC news article).  Kathleen Melker explained to ABC news that the bird’s noises make it impossible for her to find peace in her home.  Stating, “Our life basically is hell. We have no quality of life. We can’t go out in our yard. We have no peace,” Ms. Melker complains that she had to use the city ordinance to put an end to the bird’s abuse.

As a result of the complaint, the city found Ms. Taylor in violation of the ordinance and issued her the appropriate punishment: a $15 fine.  Ms. Taylor and her lawyer maintain that their challenge is not about the fine, but about the unconstitutional ordinance.  According to the case, the city law is unconstitutional because it is too vague to give pet owners adequate warning about what behavior is prohibited.

According to Ms. Taylor’s attorney, the statute will punish any pet owner for an animal’s behavior if it annoys someone enough to issue a complaint, but is not clear on specifically when a pet is too noisy.   The ordinance is arguably vague because pet owners do not know what type of behavior violates it until they have already been punished.

When a Law is Unconstitutionally Vague

The concept of unconstitutional vagueness comes from the right to due process found in the 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.  If a law allows for criminal prosecution or punishment without allowing a defendant to reasonably understand what behavior is prohibited, then it may be considered too vague.  Fighting back against punishments that arise from laws that are unconstiutionally vague is an important part of the American legal system – every law needs to specifically indicate what actions are punishable so people know what behavior is illegal. 

Of course, in this case, this important issue is hidden by circumstances that are a little ridiculous. The humorous image of a persistently profane cockatoo set loose on the neighborhood combined with the immaturity of training a talking bird to insult the girlfriend of an ex-husband and the outright silliness of challenging a $15 fine amount to a shabby legal case.  The principle that allows us to challenge unconstitutionally vague laws, however, is a critical check on government authority which should not be discounted because of the occasional sideshow.