Powell v. Texas

United States Supreme Court

392 U.S. 514, 88 S.Ct. 2145, 20 L.Ed.2d 1254 (1968)

 

      In this case the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether it is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to convict a person suffering from chronic alcoholism of the crime of public drunkenness.

 

Mr. Justice MARSHALL announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which The CHIEF JUSTICE, Mr. Justice BLACK, and Mr. Justice HARLAN join.

 

      In late December 1966, appellant [Leroy Powell] was arrested and charged with being found in a state of intoxication in a public place. . . .

 

      . . . [Powell’s] counsel urged that appellant was “afflicted with the disease of chronic alcoholism,” that “his appearance in public [while drunk was] not of his own volition,” and therefore that to punish him criminally for that conduct would be cruel and unusual, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

 

      The trial judge in the county court, sitting without a jury, made certain findings of fact, but ruled as a matter of law that chronic alcoholism was not a defense to the charge. He found appellant guilty, and fined him $50. . . .

 

      Appellant . . . seeks to come within the application of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause announced in Robinson v. California . . . (1962), which . . . held . . . that “a state statute which imprisons a person thus afflicted [with narcotic addiction] as a criminal, even though he has never touched any narcotic drug within the State or been guilty of any irregular behavior there, inflicts a cruel and unusual punishment.” . . .

 

      On its face the present case does not fall within that holding, since appellant was convicted, not for being a chronic alcoholic, but for being in public while drunk on a particular occasion. The State of Texas thus has not sought to punish a mere status, as California did in Robinson, nor has it attempted to regulate appellant’s criminal sanction for public behavior which may create substantial health and safety hazards, both for appellant and for members of the general public, and which offends the moral and aesthetic sensibilities of a large segment of the community. This seems a far cry from convicting one for being an addict, being a chronic alcoholic, being “mentally ill, or a leper.” . . .

 

      . . . [T]he most troubling aspects of this case, were Robinson to be extended to meet it, would be the scope and content of what could only be a constitutional doctrine of criminal responsibility. In dissent it is urged that the decision could be limited to conduct which is “a characteristic and involuntary part of the pattern of the disease as it afflicts” the particular individual, and that “[i]t is not foreseeable” that it would be applied “in the case of offenses such as driving a car while intoxicated, assault, theft, or robbery.” . . . That is limitation by fiat. In the first place, nothing in the logic of the dissent would limit its application to chronic alcoholics. If Leroy Powell cannot be convicted of public intoxication, it is difficult to see how a State can convict an individual for murder, if that individual, while exhibiting normal behavior in all other respects, suffers from a “compulsion” to kill, which is an “exceedingly strong influence,” but “not completely overpowering.” Even if we limit our consideration to chronic alcoholics, it would seem impossible to confine the principle within the arbitrary bounds which the dissent seems to envision.

 

      It is not difficult to imagine a case involving psychiatric testimony to the effect that an individual suffers from some aggressive neurosis which he is able to control when sober; that very little alcohol suffices to remove the inhibitions which normally contain these aggressions, with the result that the individual engages in assaultive behavior without becoming actually intoxicated; and that the individual suffers from a very strong desire to drink, which is an “exceedingly strong influence” but “not completely overpowering.” Without being untrue to the rationale of this case, should the principles advanced in dissent be accepted here, the Court could not avoid holding such an individual constitutionally unaccountable for his assaultive behavior.

 

      Traditional common-law concepts of personal accountability and essential considerations of federalism lead us to disagree with appellant. We are unable to conclude, on the state of this record or on the current state of medical knowledge, that chronic alcoholics in general, and Leroy Powell in particular, suffer from such an irresistible compulsion to drink and to get drunk in public that they are utterly unable to control their performance of either or both of these acts and thus cannot be deterred at all from public intoxication. And in any event this Court has never articulated a general constitutional doctrine of mens rea.

 

      We cannot cast aside the centuries-long evolution of the collection of interlocking and overlapping concepts which the common law has utilized to assess the moral accountability of an individual for his antisocial deeds. The doctrines of actus reus, mens rea, insanity, mistake, justification, and duress have historically provided the tools for a constantly shifting adjustment of the tension between the medical views of the nature of man. This process of adjustment has always been thought to be the province of the States.

 

      Nothing could be less fruitful than for this Court to be impelled into defining some sort of insanity test in constitutional terms. . . . It is simply not yet the time to write into the Constitution formulas cast in terms whose meaning, let alone relevance, is not yet clear either to doctors or to lawyers.

 

      Mr. Justice BLACK, whom Mr. Justice HARLAN joins, concurring. . . .

 

      Mr. Justice WHITE, concurring in the result.

 

      . . . I cannot say that the chronic alcoholic who proves his disease and a compulsion to drink is shielded from conviction when he has knowingly failed to take feasible precautions against committing a criminal act, here the act of going to or remaining in a public place. On such facts the alcoholic is like a person with smallpox, who could be convicted for being on the street but not for being ill, or, like the epileptic, who would be punished for driving a car but not for his disease. . . .

 

      Mr. Justice FORTAS, with whom Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, Mr. Justice BRENNAN, and Mr. Justice STEWART join, dissenting.

 

      . . . [T]he essential constitutional defect here is the same as in Robinson, for in both cases the particular defendant was accused of being in a condition which he had no capacity to change or avoid. The trial judge . . . found . . . that Powell is a “chronic alcoholic.” . . . I read these findings to mean that appellant was powerless to avoid drinking; that having taken his first drink, he had “an uncontrollable compulsion to drink” to the point of intoxication; and that, once intoxicated, he could not prevent himself from appearing in public places. . . .

 

      The findings in this case . . . compel the conclusion that the infliction upon appellant of a criminal penalty for being intoxicated in a public place would be “cruel and inhuman punishment” within the prohibition of the Eighth Amendment. This conclusion follows because appellant is a “chronic alcoholic” who, according to the trier of fact, cannot resist the “constant excessive consumption of alcohol” and does not appear in public by his own volition but under a “compulsion” which is part of his condition.

 

      I would reverse the judgment below.