Robinson v. California: California Narcotics Law; Criminal Offense (06/25/1962)


Robinson v. California

Was the California law an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?

Argued: 04/17/1962

Decision Date: 06/25/1962

Decision Record: 6-2; yes

Justices Majority: Earl Warren, Hugo Black, John Harlan, Potter Stewart, William Brennan, William Douglas

Justices Dissenting: Tom Clark, Byron White

Justice Felix Frankfurter did not take part in this decision.

Effect of the Decision

This case held that a state cannot pass a law that states that merely being “mentally ill, or a leper, or to be afflicted with a venereal disease” due to narccotics will be considered an offense.

In Favor

In the representation of the side of the Robinson, attorney Samuel Carter McMorris said, “The present case, Robinson versus California, is of challenge to and attack upon Section 11721 of the Health and Safety Code of the State of California essentially because we feel that it is a denial of equal protection and due process in that it punishes a status rather than an act or omission, that it punishes an involuntary status, that it punishes a status of physical and mental illness, that it is vague, indefinite and uncertain upon its face, that double jeopardy is inherent in any crime of status and certainly in this — the present one and that this statute is unwarranted and unconstitutional infringement upon the freedom of movement, that it is ex post facto and that it imposes cruel and unusual punishment.

Now, because our case is essentially an attack upon the law itself, the most crucial fact we have before us is the nature and the content or the necessary and implicit application of this law.

However, because we have — aside or collateral issue or a secondary issue challenge also the search and seizure aspect of this case under the rule of Memphis, Ohio, the recent decision of this Court and because we also feel that under Thompson versus City of Louisville, there is an adequate evidence to sustain the conviction or in fact no evidence at all and hence a denial of due process.

The facts of the case will begin with the arrest itself.

On a chilly or cold night in February of 1960, the present appellant was riding as a passenger in the backseat of a car accompanied by his lady friend and other party named Banks and his wife were in the front seat, Banks being the driver.

The arresting officers testified that they stopped the vehicle because of an absence of rear license plate illumination.

We feel that the facts as testified by the arresting officers, negative of their excuse for the stoppage and that they actually presented three or four different reasons.

Secondly, we said that there was a car that driving slowly upon a dark unlit street and finally that they — that their — the territory in question had a reputation for person action and — interesting also that these officers were not traffic officers, though their original justification, the one accepted by the Court was a traffic stopping.

They were not traffic officers.

They’re not in a traffic car.

No citation for the traffic violation was given.

Nothing was said to the — to any party about driving too slowly, and this is admitted.

And as soon as the stopping took place, they began actually a search of the parties involved to see if they were narcotic addicts of which, they had no indication prior to the stopping of the vehicle.

So, since they were felony officers and were not traffic officers though we — we do not question the right of any officer to make a traffic stopping or arrest.

Since they were not traffic officers and did not have anything to do with traffic and stopping the car, we suspect that we have here the typical arrest, aroused arrest for the purpose of search to find whatever they might have found.

In fact, one of the officers testified that when the driver Banks got out of the car, he shined his light about this person to find whatever he could find.

And this of course is an admission of a general ex — search to see what evidence of any crime might have been there present.

But leave that as it may, upon the stopping, Banks left his vehicle and — and met the officer halfway.

And at this point, although it was a cold night of February and even of course the California nights are cold generally, certain in the month of February, this — this young man obligingly had his — no jacket on and his shirt sleeves rolled up so the arresting officer could see a single mark upon one of his arms, the right or the left as the case may have been.”


Then in opposition, representing the state of California, attorney William E. Doran claimed, “Mr. McMorris stated the appellant herein was convicted of 11721, Subsection of Health and Safety Code of California.

And also has he stated, the cause went to the jury only on two issues, use and addiction under the influence of that aspect of the — of the Section.

The court took from the jury my instructions.

I may say first getting directly to Mr. McMorris his main contention of purported unconstitutional status.

This addiction statute first became criminal in California in 1929 when it was added to the Penal Code as part of the Vagrancy Section.

In 1939, it was deleted from the Penal Code and the Vagrancy Section and put into the new Health and Safety Code which is connected I think at that time.

Since then, it has remained in the Health and Safety Code and has been amended from time-to-time in minor details.

In the briefs, both appellant and appellee have referred consistently to vagrancy probably because it’s the closest or the — the most usual, shall we say, statute under which a status is involved.

Now, its appellee’s contention that when this Section was removed from the Vagrancy Section in California and put into the Health and Safety Code, the only remaining aspect of vagrancy or even comparison to vagrancy that remained was the aspects of its status.

And it is our contention that thereafter, the ordinary ideas of vagrancy such as a — a tramp or a ne’er-do-well or a wonderer and such of the many common known types, we are not involved with the situation like that at all.

We are involved with a man who is putting a foreign fire into his veins, and it bears no relationship that we contented.

There is no further relationship to vagrancy except — except the peculiarity status.

Now, counsel has cited many of these vagrancy cases and of course we have cited them, too.

And he has referred to two particularly Lanzetta against New Jersey and Edelman against California.

The Lanzetta case involved vagrancy decided by this Court and it struck down the — the statute but not on the ground alone that it punished the status.

They struck him down because it was vague and indefinite in trying to define the status, it was going to punish.

The same in Edelman which this Court having taken jurisdiction didn’t decide the case on the merits but they were two dissenting opinions that went to the merits.

And the same thing shall I say happen there.

The California Vagrancy Statute was attacked but — on a very peculiar circumstances by which California or the City of Los Angeles in this instance utilized a Section 6475 of the Penal Code which proscribe, lewd and dissolute conduct making such person a vagrant, that’s the statement of the statute.

However, in that case, the Edelman case, they didn’t plead lewdness.

The pleading went only to dissolutes.

And it was an unfortunate situation no doubt because what they were trying to reach was something that the word “dissolute” as the two dissenting justices here held just shouldn’t reach.

And peculiarly enough and about the same time, the Appellate Department of Superior Court of Los Angeles from which the appellant of — from which the Edelman case came, decided another case unreported case of People against Dragna where they assumed practically the same position as assumed by the dissent in this Court to the effect that lewd and dissolute were used in the statutes anonymously.

And meant — they meant the same thing and as you couldn’t state an offense merely by the word ‘dissolute’.

Statue was aimed at lewdness.”


The majority opinion, written by Justice Potter Stewart, said, “This statute, therefore, is not one which punishes a person for the use of narcotics, for their purchase, sale or possession, or for antisocial 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 antisocial 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. See Francis v. Resweber, 329 U.S. 459.

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 ninety 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.

We are not unmindful that the vicious evils of the narcotics traffic have occasioned the grave concern of government. There are, as we have said, countless fronts on which those evils may be legitimately attacked. We deal in this case only with an individual provision of a particularized local law as it has so far been interpreted by the California courts.”

Then in dissent, Justice Tom Clark wrote, “It is no answer to suggest that we are dealing with an involuntary status, and thus penal sanctions will be ineffective and unfair. The section at issue applies only to persons who use narcotics often, or even daily, but not to the point of losing self-control. When dealing with involuntary addicts, California moves only through § 5355 of its Welfare Institutions Code, which clearly is not penal. Even if it could be argued that § 11721 may not be limited to volitional addicts, the petitioner in the instant case undeniably retained the power of self-control, and thus, to him, the statute would be constitutional. Moreover, ‘status’ offenses have long been known and recognized in the criminal law. 4 Blackstone, Commentaries (Jones ed. 1916), 170. A ready example is drunkenness, which plainly is as involuntary after addiction to alcohol as is the taking of drugs.

Nor is the conjecture relevant that petitioner may have acquired his habit under lawful circumstances. There was no suggestion by him to this effect at trial, and surely the State need not rebut all possible lawful sources of addiction as part of its prima facie case.

The argument that the statute constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment is governed by the discussion above. Properly construed, the statute provides a treatment, rather than a punishment. But even if interpreted as penal, the sanction of incarceration for 3 to 12 months is not unreasonable when applied to a person who has voluntarily placed himself in a condition posing a serious threat to the State. Under either theory, its provisions for 3 to 12 months’ confinement can hardly be deemed unreasonable when compared to the provisions for 3 to 24 months’ confinement under § 5355 which the majority approves.”

Also in dissent, Justice Byron White wrote, “The Court has not merely tidied up California’s law by removing some irritating vestige of an outmoded approach to the control of narcotics. At the very least, it has effectively removed California’s power to deal effectively with the recurring case under the statute where there is ample evidence of use but no evidence of the precise location of use. Beyond this, it has cast serious doubt upon the power of any State to forbid the use of narcotics under threat of criminal punishment. I cannot believe that the Court would forbid the application of the criminal laws to the use of narcotics under any circumstances. But the States, as well as the Federal Government, are now on notice. They will have to await a final answer in another case.

Finally, I deem this application of ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ so novel that I suspect the Court was hard put to find a way to ascribe to the Framers of the Constitution the result reached today rather than to its own notions of ordered liberty. If this case involved economic regulation, the present Court’s allergy to substantive due process would surely save the statute and prevent the Court from imposing its own philosophical predilections upon state legislatures or Congress. I fail to see why the Court deems it more appropriate to write into the Constitution its own abstract notions of how best to handle the narcotics problem, for it obviously cannot match either the States or Congress in expert understanding.”

My Opinion:

In this case, I agree with the majority opinion. People can get very dependent and addicted to certain drugs. There have been many situations in which one’s addiction was out of their control. Some addictions are not necessarily the person’s fault. For example, if someone was injured and prescribed painkillers, and the patient unknowingly grew dependent on the painkillers, that’s not their fault and they should not be punished with 90 days in jail for something like that. The punishments should vary accordingly to the situation and not be based off of the fact that a person is addicted to a certain narcotic. 90 days in jail for an unintentional addiction would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment, because they should not be penalized for something like that with something so extreme. That would be categorized under being a “cruel and unusual punishment.”

*Justice Leaning L=Left, LC=Left of Center, C=Center, RC=Right of Center, R=Right

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