Robinson v California

United States Supreme Court

370 U.S. 660, 82 S.Ct. 1417, 8 L.Ed.2d 758 (1962)


      Robinson was convicted in a California court of violating a state statute that made it a criminal offense to “be addicted to the use of narcotics.” In this appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Robinson challenges the constitutionality of that statute, as it had been interpreted by the California courts, as violative of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


Mr. Justice Stewart delivered the opinion of the Court.


      . . . This statute . . . is not one which punishes a person for the use of narcotics, for their purchase, sale or possession, or for anti-social or disorderly behavior resulting from their administration. It is not a law which even purports to provide or require medical treatment. Rather, we deal with a statute which makes the “status” of narcotic addiction a criminal offense, for which the offender may be prosecuted “at any time before he reforms.” California has said that a person can be continuously guilty of this offense, whether or not he has ever used or possessed any narcotics within the state, and whether or not he has been guilty of any anti-social behavior there.


      It is unlikely that any state at this moment in history would attempt to make it a criminal offense for a person to be mentally ill, or a leper, or to be afflicted with a venereal disease. A state might determine that the general health and welfare require that the victims of these and other human afflictions be dealt with by compulsory treatment, involving quarantine, confinement, or sequestration. But, in the light of contemporary human knowledge, a law which made a criminal offense of such a disease would doubtless be universally thought to be an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments.


      We cannot but consider the statute before us as of the same category. In this Court counsel for the state recognized that narcotic addiction is an illness. Indeed, it is apparently an illness which may be contracted innocently or involuntarily. We hold that a state law which imprisons a person thus afflicted 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 in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. To be sure, imprisonment for 90 days is not, in the abstract, a punishment which is either cruel or unusual. But the question cannot be considered in the abstract. Even one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the “crime” of having a common cold. . . .



Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.



Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, concurring.


      . . . [T]he addict is a sick person. He may, of course, be confined for treatment or for the protection of society. Cruel and unusual punishment results not from confinement, but from convicting the addict of a crime. A prosecution for addiction, with its resulting stigma and irreparable damage to the good name of the accused, cannot be justified as a means of protecting society, where a civil commitment would do as well.


Mr. Justice CLARK, dissenting. . . .



Mr. Justice WHITE, dissenting. . . .