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Powell v. Texas

Citation. 22 Ill.130 S. Ct. 3449, 177 L. Ed. 2d 353 (2010) [2010 BL 134753]
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Brief Fact Summary.

Appellant was arrested and charged with public intoxication. The trial judge ruled as a matter of law that chronic alcoholism was not a defense to the charge. Appellant was found guilty and fined fifty dollars.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A statute making it a crime to be intoxicated while in public does not violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. Chronic alcoholism is not a “disease” which qualifies as a defense to the charge of public intoxication.


Appellant Powell was arrested and charged under the Texas penal code for being in a state of intoxication in a public place. The state law provides “whoever shall get drunk or be found in a state of intoxication in any public place, or at any private house except his own, shall be fined no more than one hundred dollars.” Powell asserted the defense that he was a chronic alcoholic who was unable to control his drinking. The main testimony came from Dr. Wade, a psychiatrist who outlined the “disease” concept of alcoholism and alluded to the ongoing debate within the medical profession over whether alcohol is physically addicting or psychologically habituating. Wade concluded that a chronic alcoholic is an involuntary drinker who loses self-control over his drinking. Furthermore, Wade testified that Powell is a chronic alcoholic with an uncontrollable compulsion to drink. On cross-examination, Wade admitted that when appellant was sober, he knew right from wrong. Appellant testif
ied that he had multiple arrests for drunk driving, he was unable to stop drinking, and he could not remember the arrest in question. However, he admitted to having a drink on the morning of the trial, but was able to stop drinking. The trial judge ruled as a matter of law that chronic alcoholism was not a defense to the charge and found Powell guilty of the offense.


Does chronic alcoholism qualify as a “disease” such that it is a defense to the charge of public intoxication?

Is the assessment of a criminal penalty upon an individual for being intoxicated in a public place cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment?


No and No. Conviction upheld.
The dissent’s position that a person cannot be punished if the condition essential to constitute the crime is part of the pattern of his disease, predicated upon a compulsion of the disease, goes much too far on the basis of too little knowledge. The record in this case is inadequate to permit such a ruling. There is no information about the circumstances surrounding the incident leading to the arrest and there is no agreement among members of the medical profession about what it means to say alcoholism is a disease.

In order to establish this type of defense, an individual would have to display both an inability to abstain from drinking and to exhibit a loss of control. In this case, Dr. Wade testified that once the Appellant began drinking, he appeared to have no control over the amount he finally ingested. Appellant, however, testified that he was able to control his drinking on the day of the trial. These findings seem to be contradictory in nature.

In addition, the medical profession cannot tell us for sure that even if trained personnel were available, an alcoholic could be cured if given treatment. At least there is a limit to the amount of jail time someone could receive upon conviction, whereas “therapeutic civil commitment” may lack a definite time period.

Appellant’s claim that his conviction violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment as announced in Robinson is without merit. In Robinson, the State of Texas sought to punish a mere status and to regulate an individual’s behavior in his own home. Neither of those issues are present here. The dissent argues 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. Even if we limit our decision to chronic alcoholics, it would seem impossible to confine the principle within such arbitrary bounds.


Justice Fortas, joined by Justices Douglas, Brennan and Steward dissenting: This case concerns the mere condition of being intoxicated in public and not the responsibility of an alcoholic for his criminal acts. Alcohol can be habituating and physically addicting. Alcoholism is not within the control of the person involved. Robinson stands upon the principle that criminal penalties cannot be inflicted upon a person for being in a condition in which he is powerless to change. The constitutional defect in Robinson exists in this case. The defendants in both cases were accused of being in a condition which they had no capacity to change or avoid. The trial judge found Powell to be a chronic alcoholic and defined chronic alcoholism as a “disease which destroys the afflicted person’s power to resist the constant, excessive consumption of alcohol.” The judgment below should be reversed.


Justice Black and Justice Harlan concurring: The question here is whether the act committed can be the result of a part of the Defendant’s personality and therefore he should not be regarded as criminally liable. Medical decisions concerning the use of a term such as “disease” are based on the clinical problems of diagnosis and treatment. They should have no bearing on whether the overall objectives of the criminal law can be achieved by implementing punishment. The states should not be held under a constitutional requirement to make the inquiry as to what part of the Defendant’s persona is responsible for his actions. The Supreme Court would be compelled to hold the states powerless to punish any conduct shown to result from “compulsion.” This would in effect recognize “irresistible impulse” as a complete defense to any crime. This notion is contrary to present American law.

Justice White concurring in the result: The conviction in this case can only be invalidated if there is a constitutional basis for saying that Defendant cannot be punished for being intoxicated in public. Before and after a chronic alcoholic takes his first drink, and before he loses the ability to direct his movements, that person with a home or financial resources is capable of making the decision to drink in private or otherwise remove himself from public places. Therefore, a chronic alcoholic cannot be shielded from conviction when he purposely failed to take precautions against committing a criminal act. For those alcoholics who are homeless, a showing may be made that resisting public drunkenness is impossible because they have no other place to go.


At stake here are traditional common law concepts of personal accountability and essential considerations of federalism. Formulating a constitutional rule pertaining to this issue would possibly eliminate the productive and developing dialogue between the legal and medical fields. The traditional purposes of the criminal law can be greatly served by punishing the person who committed the crime whether or not his action was “compelled” by some elusive “irresponsible” aspect of his persona.

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