One of the distinguishing marks of American law is that the definition of a crime is not left to the courts to decide. In Britain, the “older brother” of our own legal system, legislators let criminal definitions be formed in the court of common law. As a result, the definition of a crime has the ability to evolve and shift over time, according to how the judges rule.
In America, legislators create statutes regarding the definition of crimes, and courts must interpret them over time to apply to new situations in every case. Here, how a criminal law is applied becomes the court’s responsibility, rather than how a crime is defined--interpretation is their primary role. That’s why courts abide by a legal principle known as the Rule of Lenity.
The Rule of Lenity & Why It Matters
The Rule of Lenity is the legal principle that if a law or statute is ambiguous, it must be interpreted by the courts in favor of the defendant. The Rule of Lenity is sometimes referred to as the “safety valve” of due process. That’s because it prevents the courts from using an ambiguous law in order to be unduly or unfairly harsh on the citizens of Texas (or any state).
In 2015, Texas codified the Rule of Lenity into an actual law. Any ambiguous law that defines or creates a crime must be interpreted to favor you and other citizens in all cases. This move further solidifies the rights of defendants in the Texas courts, and as a Fort Worth criminal defense attorney, I support any law that protects your rights as a defendant in a criminal case.
New Technology, Old Criminal Law
Rule of Lenity is particularly important in the 21st century. As new technologies and behaviors are created faster than the law can keep up with, the temptation to apply old or ambiguous laws to punish new crimes is growing stronger. The Rule of Lenity forces lawmakers to address crime in the American tradition—through careful legislation, not unfair or inappropriate interpretation.
The Rule of Lenity is an important part of American law, as well as crucial to the practice of common law all over the world. As the definition of crime continues to shift, I hope that society is nimble enough to shift with it while maintaining legal and ethical integrity. More than anything, I hope the state governments continue to protect the rights of their citizens in criminal courts.