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Robinson v. California

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Bloomberg Law

Brief Fact Summary.

A California statute makes it a criminal offense for a person to be addicted to the use of narcotics. Appellant, Robinson was found guilty of the offense.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A state law which imprisons an individual for being addicted to drugs, even though he has never touched the drug within the state or been guilty of any anti-social behavior there, is an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.


In California, a statute made it a criminal offense for an individual to be addicted to narcotics. At trial, prosecutors presented evidence via policemen that Robinson had scar tissue, discoloration and needle marks. These were indications of frequent use of narcotics. The judge instructed the jury that Robinson could be convicted under a general verdict if the jury agreed either that he was of the “status” or had committed the “act” under the statute. Robinson was found guilty of the offense by a jury of his peers.


Did the California state law violate the Constitution?


Yes. Judgment reversed. Justice Potter Stewart delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court. This statute does not punish a person for the use of narcotics, purchase or sale of narcotics, or for antisocial behavior resulting from their use. Instead, the statute makes the “status” of narcotic addiction a criminal offense. California has said that a person can be forever guilty of this offense, whether or not that person has ever used of possessed any narcotics within the state. Narcotic addiction is an illness. It is not likely that any state would attempt to make it a criminal offense for a person to be mentally ill. In light of the current state of human knowledge, a law making such a disease a criminal offense would without a doubt be thought an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.


Justice Byron R. White dissenting. This holding allows the Fourteenth Amendment to bar any prosecution for addiction regardless of the amount of use. The Court has removed California’s power to effectively deal with a recurring case under the statute where there is sufficient evidence of use but no evidence of use in a particular location. This holding projects serious doubt on the power of any state to prohibit the use of narcotics under the threat of criminal punishment.


Justices William O. Douglas and John M. Harlan concurring. An addict is a sick person who may be confined for treatment. Cruel and unusual punishment results from locking an individual away, not from the conviction. In this case, the trial court’s jury instructions allowed the jury to find the appellant guilty on proof that he was present in California while addicted to drugs. Because addiction itself is no more than a compelling desire to use drugs, the effect of the jury instruction was to authorize criminal punishment for the desire to commit a criminal act.


The court discusses how they think imprisonment for a short amount of time is not cruel and unusual punishment when considered in the abstract. However, they feel the issue should not be considered in the abstract. For example, even one day in prison would be cruel and unusual punishment for the “crime” of having a common cold.

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