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Pringle v. Court of Common Pleas

December 12, 1985


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania (C.A. No. 83-0364).

Before: ADAMS, Acting Chief Judge, HUNTER, Circuit Judge, and FISHER, District Judge*fn*


Per Curiam.

In a habeas corpus petition, appellant challenges her conviction in state court for violation of Pennsylvania's disorderly conduct statute. She argues that the conviction, based solely on her offensive speech addressed to police officers, was an abridgement of her due process and First Amendment rights. We find that her due process contention is controlled by Supreme Court precedent, and on that ground alone will reverse the district court and order that the writ of habeas corpus be issued.

On October 1, 1979, appellant Paula Pringle, than seventeen years old, was arrested by the Shippensburg police and charged with one count of disorderly conduct through use of obscene language. 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 5503(a)(3).*fn1 The charge arose from Pringle's actions on the night of September 28, 1979. AT 10:40 p.m. that night, four police officers were in the process of arresting Tony Neil on a public street; Neil was resisting violently. A crowd of 30 to 50 people gathered, including Pringle, a friend of Neil's. Pringle moved through the crowd, shouting several times, "goddamn fucking pigs," and "fucking pig, let him go."

Pringle had no previous record with the Shippensburg police. At trial before the Court of Common Pleas, she testified that she did not remember her exact language, but recalled being upset because she saw police officers kicking Neil and hitting him with a flashlight while he lay handcuffed on the ground.

The district magistrate found Pringle guilty and fined her $100. On appeal, a bench trial was held de novo in the Court of Common Pleas; the defendant was found guilty and sentenced to 10 to 30 days in prison. The Superior Court affirmed, deciding that the state statute met constitutional requirements, and that Pringle's speech was obscene, constituted "fighting words" and accordingly was unprotected by the First Amendment. Commonwealth v. Pringle, 304 Pa. Super. 67, 450 A.2d 103 (1982). The state Supreme Court denied allocatur.

Pringle filed a petition in federal district court for habeas corpus relief. The district court initially dismissed the petition, since at the time Pringle filed it a separate appeal of her sentence was pending in state court. The Court reversed, Pringle v. Court of Common Pleas, 744 F.2d 297 (3d Cir. 1984), and on remand the district court addressed Pringle's constitutional claims. 604 F. Supp. 623 (M.D. Pa. 1985).*fn2 The court upheld the validity of the statute, and held that Pringle's speech was unprotected, relying solely on the fighting words doctrine. It therefore denied the requested relief.

Pringle now asserts various constitutional claims before this Court. She insists that the Commonwealth's disorderly conduct statute is overbroad and impermissibly vague, and therefore must be invalidated as an abridgement of First Amendment and due process rights. She also contends that even if there were a valid statutory basis for her conviction, her speech was constitutionally protected and the conviction infringed her First Amendment rights. Because we decide that the statute was vague at the time Pringle acted and was charged in 1979, and the charge and conviction therefore violated essential requirements of due process, we will not address her other constitutional claims.


Pringle contends that the statutory bar on "obscene" words employed to create a public disturbance was unduly vague. We note initially that § 5503(a)(1), which expressly prohibits "threatening" in public, apparently precludes the use by a citizen of "fighting words." While Pringle may very well have been guilty of uttering, "fighting words," see Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 571, 86 L. Ed. 1031, 62 S. Ct. 766 (1942), we are unable to consider that possibility since she was charged only under § 5503(a)(3) and not (a)(1). We therefore address our attention to the former provision.

The Supreme Court explained the rationales for and the purpose of the vagueness principle in Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 33 L. Ed. 2d 222, 92 S. Ct. 2294 (1972):

It is a basic principle of due process that an enactment is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. Vague laws offend several important values. First, because we assume that man is free to steer between lawful and unlawful conduct, we insist that laws give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly. Vague laws may trap the innocent by not providing a fair warning. Second, if arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement is to be prevented, laws must provide explicit standards for those who apply them. A vague law impermissibly delegates basic policy matters to policemen, judges, and juries for resolution on an ad hoc and subjective basis, with the attendant dangers of arbitrary and discriminatory application. Third, but related, where a vague statute "abut[s] upon sensitive areas of basic First Amendment freedoms," it "operates to inhibit the exercise of [those] freedoms." Uncertain meanings inevitably lead citizens to "'steer far wider of the unlawful zone' . . . that if the boundaries of the forbidden areas were clearly marked."

Id. at 107-08 (footnotes omitted) (quoting Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 372, 12 L. Ed. 2d 377, 84 S. Ct. 1316 (1964); Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278, ...

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