Connecticut General Statute 53-21 states, in relevant part:
a) Any person who (1) wilfully or unlawfully causes or permits any child under the age of sixteen years to be placed in such a situation that the life or limb of such child is endangered, the health of such child is likely to be injured or the morals of such child are likely to be impaired, or does any act likely to impair the health or morals of any such child, or (2) has contact with the intimate parts, as defined in section 53a-65, of a child under the age of sixteen years or subjects a child under sixteen years of age to contact with the intimate parts of such person, in a sexual and indecent manner likely to impair the health or morals of such child
is guilty of “Risk of Injury to a Minor”. A conviction under subsection (1) is a Class C felony carrying a maximum prison term of 10 years and a conviction under subsection (2) is a Class B felony, carrying a maximum prison term of 20 years.
The motivation behind the enacting of this statute is noble:
The general purpose of § 53-21 is to protect the physical and psychological well-being of children from the potentially harmful conduct of adults.
State v. Payne, 240 Conn. 766. Yet the statute is so poorly worded and generally vague, that it has required years upon years of judicial interpretation and gloss to enable it to pass Constitutional muster:
We then proceeded to review the general features of § 53-21, noting that, “on its face, § 53-21 fails to articulate a definite standard for determining whether the conduct of [Schriver was] permitted or prohibited. ‘Any act’ may violate the statute so long as it is ‘likely to impair’ a minor’s health or morals. Standing alone, the phrase ‘any act’ provides no guidance to potential violators, police officers or juries, particularly because specific intent is not an element of the offense as charged in this case. . . . Nor is the focus of the statute measurably narrowed by the phrase ‘likely to impair.’ In its ordinary meaning, this phrase would seem to authorize police officers and jurors to determine culpability subjectively, on an ad hoc basis. Rather than providing objective certainty, this phrase compounds the vagueness of the statute because it invites jurors to base criminal liability on their own moral [predilections] and personal predictions of likely harm.” (Citations omitted.) Id., 461-62. After observing that other jurisdictions had deemed similar statutes unconstitutional, we concluded that, “in like fashion, § 53-21 fails to manifest minimal guidelines by which innocent acts can be objectively and foreseeably distinguished from conduct that violates the statute. . . . [Consequently], the constitutionality of § 53-21 depends upon a determination of the extent to which prior decisions of this court have supplied sufficient guidelines to save the statute from its facial invalidity.” (Citation omitted.) Id., 462.
Although the risk of injury statute was amended in 1995 to forbid expressly the sexual and indecent touching of intimate parts, the more general statutory language that proscribes an “act likely to impair the health or morals of . . . [a] child,” in subdivision (1) of § 53-21, has remained unchanged since this court’s decision in Schriver. Compare General Statutes § 53-21 (a) (1) with General Statutes (Rev. to 1987) § 53-21. The passage of time alone has not cured the facial vagueness of § 53-21 (1), nor has it altered the need to adhere to constitutional principles of due process of law in the application and enforcement of that statute. Cf. State v. Schriver, supra, 207 Conn. 459-61. Thus, the constitutionality of § 53-21 (1), as that statute is applied in any given case, continues to depend predominantly “upon a determination of the extent to which prior decisions of this court have supplied sufficient guidelines to save the statute from its facial invalidity.” Id., 462. In order to render § 53-21 (1) constitutionally viable, the decisions of this court must state with reasonable particularity the conduct that is proscribed by that statute.
State v. Robert H. The extent to which the Connecticut Supreme Court has gone to save an admittedly infirm statute is staggering. A statute that, upon fair reading, gives notice that a very limited set of actions are proscribed, has been judicially expanded to cover every perceived slight against a minor that a prosecutor with an infertile imagination can be counted upon to summon.
But that’s not my particular peeve with this statute and its judicially emboldened meaning. My grudge lies with the (lack of) meaning of the all-too-important phrase “likely to impair”. Continue reading