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Powell v. Texas

    Brief Fact Summary. Appellant was convicted for public drunkenness. Appellant argued that hewas a chronic alcoholic who could not control his compulsion to drink.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Alcoholics cannot be said to suffer from an irresistible impulse to drink in public and thus unable to conform their actions to the law.

    Facts. Appellant was arrested and charged with being found intoxicated in a public place. Evidence was presented on alcoholism as a disease that makes someone an involuntary drinker who is not able to control his behavior. Appellant argued that he should not be jailed or fined because of this disease. The trial court found him guilty and fined him. Appellant argued on appeal that infliction of this punishment was cruel and unusual punishment because he could not conform his actions to the law.

    Issue. Whether Appellant’s alcoholism was a sufficient defense to the charge of public drunkenness.

    Held. Appeal dismissed.
    The statute imposes a criminal sanction for public behavior which may create substantial health and safety hazards, which offends the moral and esthetic sensibilities of a large section of the community.

    Criminal penalties may not be inflicted upon a person for being in a condition is powerless to change.

    Concurrence. Justice White concurred but argued that if Appellant was able to show that he was unable to stop from drinking in public; he may be able to escape this charge. Justice White based his reasoning on the premise that if it cannot be a crime to have an irresistible impulse to use drugs, than it cannot be a crime to yield to such a compulsion under the Court’s holding in Robinson.

    Dissent. The dissent argued criminal penalties may not be inflicted upon a person for being in a condition he is powerless to change. Once afflicted, Appellant was powerless to choose to violate the law. The infliction on punishment on Appellant in this case would be cruel and unusual punishment.

    Discussion. The Court ruled that its holding in Robinson v. California, which involved a state statute making it a crime to be addicted to the use of drugs, inflicted a cruel and unusual punishment was not applicable in this case. The statute in this case concerned being drunk in a public place and did not make it a crime to be an alcoholic, thus Appellant’s constitutional argument failed. The Court could not conclude that chronic alcoholics in general suffer from an irresistible compulsion to drink in public and are utterly unable to conform their acts to the law.


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