Coates v. City of Cincinnati

RESPONDENT: City of Cincinnati
LOCATION: United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)

CITATION: 402 US 611 (1971)
ARGUED: Jan 11, 1971
DECIDED: Jun 01, 1971

Facts of the case


Media for Coates v. City of Cincinnati

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 1971 in Coates v. City of Cincinnati

Warren E. Burger:

We’ll hear arguments next in number 117, Coates against the City of Cincinnati.

Mr. Lavercombe, you may proceed whenever you’re ready.

Robert R. Lavercombe:

Thank you sir.

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This appeal concerns a Cincinnati ordinance which is called the loitering ordinance, but which is really more an unlawful assembly type piece of legislation.

The ordinance provides that when in the company of two or more other people, one so conducts himself as to annoy persons passing by, a crime is committed, unless that conduct takes place at the public meeting of citizens, in which case, it is not crime.

Hamilton County, Ohio includes Cincinnati and the number of other municipalities and several of them have also had ordinances using similar language.

In the 1940, the common police court for Hamilton County which has county wide jurisdiction held that the language used made the legislation unconstitutional.

All over Ohio, the courts reached the same conclusion through the years and in 1968, the appeals court for the Cleveland area wrote in detail at length and with emphasis how the lack of ascertainable standards made the annoyance test in the Cleveland ordinance cause it to represent an unconstitutional exercise of the police power, and it was therefore void for vagueness.

That opinion is quoted at length at pages 5 and 6 in our jurisdictional statement and was written by the same judge who in 1970, he wrote so strongly to the opposite effect in a 4 to 3 decision of the Ohio Supreme Court in this case of Coates versus Cincinnati.

But at least between 1940 and 1968, the annoyance test was considered to be void for vagueness.

Indeed in 1962, the Supreme Court of Ohio held that a dog barking ordinance which used the annoyance test was void for vagueness.

But in 1967 during the summer, Cincinnati along with many other areas had racial disturbances, and the police and perhaps more significantly, other city officials frequently found themselves irritated or provoked, annoyed by the conduct of those who complained and those who disturbed.

And members of the city Government including police were not able to charge many of those who irritated them with trespass or assault and battery or profanity or disorderly conduct.

So the officials and the police who were beset by annoyance which Webster’s collegiate dictionary in the 7th Edition defines as a wearing on the nerves by persistent petty unpleasantness, they arrested those who provoke them and hold them away and that ended the annoyance for a very short time, because that use of that legislative language making annoyance a crime, directly results in contempt for our system of law and order, or I think more properly law and order with the justice.

Byron R. White:

Was there a conviction in this case?

Robert R. Lavercombe:

Yes sir.

Byron R. White:

And was there a trial?

Robert R. Lavercombe:

Yes sir.

There was a trial.

Actually, there are two --

Byron R. White:

How about the evidence?

Robert R. Lavercombe:

At the trial, the --

Byron R. White:

It was directly?

Robert R. Lavercombe:


There was evidence of the type Your Honor, means refers to presented.

The case did not come up on the facts.

The only -- I believe Mr. Nichols can correct me, I believe the facts -- I have to correct myself -- I believe the facts were presented to the trial court to some degree but no effort was made to incorporate them in the Bill of Exceptions and they have not going to part of the appeal.

Byron R. White:

Certainly, evidence must have represented by the state to --

Robert R. Lavercombe: