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Robinson v. California

In Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660, 82 S. Ct. 1417, 8 L. Ed. 2d 758 (1962), the U.S. Supreme Court made two landmark rulings on the scope and meaning of the CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS CLAUSE of the EIGHTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution.

The Eighth Amendment guarantees that "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." At issue in Robinson v. California was the constitutionality of a California CRIMINAL LAW that made being a narcotics addict a crime. To reach this issue, however, the Court first broke new ground and ruled that the Eighth Amendment applied to the states through the DUE PROCESS CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT.

Lawrence Robinson was stopped on a city street by a Los Angeles police officer, who had noticed that Robinson's arms were scabbed, discolored, and filled with needle marks. The officer arrested Robinson, who was sent to the Los Angeles central jail. The next day his arms were again examined, this time by a member of the narcotics division of the police department. Based on his examination, the officer concluded the marks and discoloration were the result of the injection of unsterilized hypodermic needles into Robinson's arms. Both police officers claimed that Robinson admitted he had occasionally used narcotics.

Robinson was charged with violating a California criminal law that made it illegal to "be addicted to the use of narcotics." At his trial Robinson denied that he had told police he used narcotics and asserted that the marks on his arm were the result of an allergic condition contracted while he was in military service. Two witnesses corroborated his testimony. The jury was instructed that it could convict Robinson if it believed he was addicted to the use of narcotics. Unlike most criminal laws, which require that a person be convicted for a criminal act, in this case Robinson could be convicted for his condition, or status, as a drug addict. The jury convicted Robinson of the misdemeanor, and the California appellate courts upheld the conviction.

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted Robinson's appeal and reversed the conviction. Justice POTTER STEWART, in his majority opinion, had to cross a major constitutional barrier before ruling on the Eighth Amendment issue. Until the 1960s the Court had abided by precedent that held that the rights guaranteed to criminal defendants by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments applied only to the federal courts. During the 1940s Justice HUGO L. BLACK had advocated the incorporation of these amendments into the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, thus making the amendments applicable to the states.

The Court eventually came around to Black's position and in 1961 started to selectively apply these rights to the states. In MAPP V. OHIO, 367 U.S. 643, 81 S. Ct. 1684, 6 L. Ed. 2d 1081 (1961), the Court used the Fourteenth Amendment to apply the Fourth Amendment's EXCLUSIONARY RULE to the states; this rule prevents illegally obtained evidence from being introduced at trial. Stewart reflected this shift in position when he announced in Robinson that the California statute "is repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution." This meant that the rights guaranteed under the Eighth Amendment now applied to the states.

Having established the right of the Court to examine state criminal law for Eighth Amendment violations, Stewart reviewed the California statute. He acknowledged that the state had a right to regulate the sale and use of illegal narcotics, establish drug treatment programs, and seek ways of improving the economic and social conditions under which drug addiction flourishes. But he also observed that the state could choose among many options in addressing the problem without violating a person's constitutional rights.

The major defect of the law was making the "status" of narcotic addiction a criminal offense, for which the offender might be prosecuted at any time before reforming his ways. Stewart was troubled 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 antisocial behavior there."

Establishing the criminal status of "narcotics addict" violated the ban on cruel and unusual punishment because a person addicted to drugs suffers from an illness. Stewart pointed out that government no longer makes it a criminal offense to be a person suffering from a contagious physical disease or mental illness. Those persons may legally be subject to compulsory treatment, such as quarantine or confinement, but they are not charged with a crime. An attempt by a state to do so, "in the light of contemporary human knowledge," would be a violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The Court noted that even California admitted narcotic addiction was an illness that may be contracted innocently or involuntarily. In light of this admission, Stewart held that a "state law which imprisons a person thus afflicted as a criminal" inflicts cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Though Robinson would have been confined for only 90 days, "[e]ven one day in prison would be a cruel and unusual punishment for the 'crime' of having a common cold."

In dissenting opinions, Justices TOM CLARK and BYRON WHITE argued that the Court had unfairly disturbed a "comprehensive and enlightened program for the control of narcotism based on the overriding policy of prevention and cure." Clark stated that the criminal statute was intended for persons still in the early stages of addiction who retained self-control and required short-term confinement and PAROLE with frequent drug tests. Though the law appeared penal, its provisions were very similar to those for civil commitment and treatment of addicts "who have lost the power of self-control." The civil and criminal laws shared the common purpose of rehabilitating narcotic addicts and preventing continued addiction. In light of this common purpose, opined Clark, that one law "might be labeled 'criminal' seems irrelevant." It was within the power of California to design its course of treatment.

The elimination of drug addiction as a status offense meant that the criminal justice system could only address specific actions of traffickers and users. Possession of narcotics is a crime, but the physical condition of addiction cannot be. The state may address addiction through civil commitment for drug treatment.

Despite the Court's holding that narcotics addiction is an illness, it later proved unwilling to draw the same conclusion concerning alcohol abuse. In Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514, 88 S. Ct. 2145, 20 L. Ed. 2d 1254 (1968), the Court, by a 5–4 vote, upheld a Texas law that made it a crime to be publicly intoxicated. The Court reasoned that the Texas law was constitutional because it did not make the status of being an alcoholic an offense but prohibited the specific offense of public intoxication. Rather than following the Robinson approach, the Court said that knowledge about alcoholism and the record in the case were inadequate to make the punishment of alcohol-related offenses cruel and unusual. Justice ABE FORTAS, in a dissenting opinion, argued that the Robinson rule should be followed and that "criminal penalties may not be inflicted upon a person for being in a condition he is powerless to change."


Boaz, David, ed. 1990. The Crisis in Drug Prohibition. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.

Smith, Juliette. 1996. "Arresting the Homeless for Sleeping in Public: A Paradigm for Expanding the Robinson Doctrine." Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems 29 (winter).

Terkel, Susan N. 1990. Should Drugs Be Legalized? Danbury, Conn.: Scholastic Library.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962