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People v. Boomer: The Case of the Cussing Canoeist

August 1, 2009 Criminal Law and Procedure

The Michigan Court of Appeals in the case of People v. Boomer struck down a hundred year-old law on the books that made using bad language in front of women and children a crime.

What Happened in the Case

The case took place on the Rifle River up in Arenac County, Michigan. Mr. Boomer was canoeing down the river when he fell into the water. Mr. Boomer let out a stream of profanities, slapped the water, and threw his hands in the air. Presumably, Mr. Boomer was upset he fell into the water. There were many women and children on the water that day who could hear these profanities.

An enterprising deputy from the sheriff’s department heard the commotion and the defendant’s vulgar language from about a quarter mile away. The deputy issued the defendant a ticket for a violation of MCL 750.337. The ticket was written as part of a crackdown by local law enforcement for complaints about canoeists on the river.

The Law at Issue

MCL 750.337 made it a misdemeanor for any person to use indecent, immoral, obscene, vulgar, or insulting language in the presence of hearing of any woman or child.

At the time of the case, the law was already 102 years-old, seemingly from a different era. For some reason, this case prompted police in other cities to start writing tickets for a violation of the law.

By the time defendant Boomer’s case went to trial, judges in at least two other courts had dismissed cases with charges of this crime.

On Appeal

Mr. Boomer was convicted following a jury trial in the district court. Mr. Boomer appealed. His argument was that the law was unconstitutional. Specifically, Mr. Boomer argued the law was unconstitutionally vague.

A law is vague where the prohibitions of the law are not clearly defined. The problem with a vague law is that a person has no notice of what the prohibited conduct is, and so cannot act accordingly. A vague law may result in arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement. Also, a vague law may violate the protections of the First Amendment.

The Court’s Decision

The Court concluded that it would be difficult to conceive of a law that was more vague. This law provided no guidance as to what was prohibited language. Large amounts of the population could be subject to violating the “insulting” language part of the law. The law would basically require every person who speaks near a child to guess what a police officer might consider obscene, indecent, or insulting. The law was struck down as unconstitutional.

Get in Touch

Call Sam Bernstein at 734-883-9584 or e-mail at bernstein@arborypsilaw.com.

Sam Bernstein is an Ann Arbor Criminal Defense Attorney.

ArborYpsi Law is located at 4158 Washtenaw Ave., Ann Arbor, MI 48108.

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