Lambert v. California

355 U.S. 225 (1957)

Quick Summary

Quick Summary Icon

Lambert (defendant) who was convicted for not registering as a felon under a Los Angeles ordinance. Despite her lack of knowledge about this requirement, she faced legal penalties.

The main issue was whether enforcing this ordinance without proving the defendant’s knowledge violated due process. The Supreme Court concluded it did, reversing Lambert’s conviction based on the principle that penal laws require notice.

Facts of the Case

Facts of the case Icon

Lambert (defendant) was subject to a Los Angeles city ordinance that mandated individuals with felony convictions to register with the Chief of Police. Despite residing in Los Angeles for over seven years and having a previous forgery conviction in the city, Lambert was unaware of this requirement.

Upon arrest for a different suspicion, she was charged with failing to register. Lambert’s defense that she had no knowledge of the registration mandate was not accepted in trial, leading to her conviction and subsequent appeals. The ordinance in question did not necessitate any willful action on the part of the individual; it was the mere act of residing in Los Angeles without registration that constituted an offense.

Lambert’s appeal brought forth the question of whether such a law violates due process when applied to someone without knowledge of the requirement and with no evidence suggesting they should have been aware of it.

Procedural Posture and History

History Icon
  1. Lambert was charged and convicted for failing to register under the Los Angeles ordinance.
  2. She was fined $250 and placed on three years’ probation.
  3. Lambert appealed, asserting the ordinance violated her due process rights.
  4. The Appellate Department of the Superior Court affirmed the conviction.
  5. The case was escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether a law requiring individuals with felony convictions to register, without including an element of willfulness or knowledge, violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when applied to a person who has no actual knowledge of the requirement.

Rule of Law

Rule Icon

Due process requires that laws provide adequate notice to individuals before penalizing them for failure to comply. A statute that imposes criminal penalties without requiring proof of willful violation or knowledge of the law’s requirements may infringe upon this principle.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The Supreme Court analyzed the nature of the ordinance, noting its passive requirement and lack of necessary willful action. The Court emphasized that while ignorance of the law is typically no defense, due process demands notice and the opportunity to comply.

It concluded that Lambert’s lack of actual knowledge, combined with no evidence indicating she should have known about the registration requirement, rendered her conviction unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.


Conclusion Icon

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed Lambert’s conviction, ruling that due process was violated by applying the registration ordinance without proof of her knowledge or willfulness.

Dissenting Opinions

Judge Icon

Justice Burton dissented, believing the ordinance did not violate Lambert’s constitutional rights. Justice Frankfurter, joined by Justices Harlan and Whittaker, also dissented, arguing that numerous laws impose requirements without knowledge and that drawing a constitutional distinction based on awareness would undermine a vast array of established legislation.

Key Takeaways

Takeaway Icon
  1. The U.S. Supreme Court held that due process under the Fourteenth Amendment requires notice before imposing criminal penalties for failure to act.
  2. The decision established that laws penalizing passive non-compliance must include an element of willfulness or at least evidence that the individual likely knew of the requirement.
  3. It is significant in demonstrating limits to the ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse’ principle when due process is at stake.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What are the due process requirements for a law to impose criminal penalties?

Due process requires that laws imposing criminal penalties must give individuals notice of the conduct that is criminalized and a reasonable opportunity to comply. Additionally, for certain passive violations where the individual may not be aware of the requirement, the law must either incorporate an element of willfulness or ensure an individual had an opportunity to become aware of the legal obligation.

  • For example: A law that imposes fines for not securing building permits must make information about permit requirements accessible and provide warnings before penalizing non-compliance.

In what circumstances might 'ignorance of the law' be an acceptable defense?

‘Ignorance of the law’ may be considered a defense when a statute criminalizes otherwise innocent behavior without knowledge, and there has been no reasonable opportunity to learn of the legal obligation. This defense applies in scenarios where due process necessitates awareness of the law’s requirements before penalties can ensue for failure to act.

  • For example: An individual may not be held liable for violating a new tax reporting requirement if there was inadequate notice given before penalties were levied for non-compliance.

How does due process relate to laws that require individuals to take affirmative action?

Due process relates to such laws by mandating that people have fair notice and an understanding that a failure to take affirmative action could result in criminal penalties. Without clear communication of these obligations, enforcing penalties violates the principle of fair notice inherent in due process protections.

  • For example: A jurisdiction requires homeowners to register their security alarms with the local police; however, if this requirement is not made public knowledge through adequate notice, penalizing non-registered homeowners would contravene due process.


Last updated

Was this case brief helpful?

More Case Briefs in Criminal Law