Amdt8. Drug and Alchohol Dependency

Eighth Amendment:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

In Robinson v. California1 the Court set aside a conviction under a law making it a crime to be addicted to the use of narcotics. The statute was unconstitutional because it punished the mere status of being an addict without any requirement of a showing that a defendant had ever used narcotics within the jurisdiction of the state or had committed any act at all within the state’s power to proscribe, and because addiction is an illness that—however it is acquired—physiologically compels the victim to continue using drugs. The case could stand for the principle, therefore, that one may not be punished for a status in the absence of some act,2 or it could stand for the broader principle that it is cruel and unusual to punish someone for conduct that he is unable to control, which would make it a holding of far-reaching importance.3 In Powell v. Texas,4 a majority of the Justices took the latter view of Robinson, but the result, because of one Justice's view of the facts, was a refusal to invalidate a conviction of an alcoholic for public drunkenness. Whether either the Eighth Amendment or the Due Process Clauses will govern the requirement of the recognition of capacity defenses to criminal charges remains to be decided.


  1.  Jump to essay-1370 U.S. 660 (1962).
  2.  Jump to essay-2A different approach to essentially the same problem was taken in Thompson v. Louisville, 362 U.S. 199, 206 (1960), which set aside a conviction for loitering and disorderly conduct as being supported by no evidence whatever. Cf. Johnson v. Florida, 391 U.S. 596 (1968) (no evidence that the defendant was wandering or strolling around in violation of vagrancy law).
  3.  Jump to essay-3Fully applied, the principle would raise to constitutional status the concept of mens rea, and it would thereby constitutionalize some form of insanity defense as well as other capacity defenses. For a somewhat different approach, see Lambert v. California, 355 U.S. 225 (1957) (due process denial for city to apply felon registration requirement to someone present in city but lacking knowledge of requirement). More recently, this controversy has become a due process matter, with the holding that the Due Process Clause requires the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the facts necessary to constitute the crime charged, Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684 (1975), raising the issue of the insanity defense and other such questions. See Rivera v. Delaware, 429 U.S. 877 (1976); Patterson v. New York, 432 U.S. 197, 202–05 (1977). In Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 297 n.22 (1983), an Eighth Amendment proportionality case, the Court suggested in dictum that life imprisonment without possibility of parole of a recidivist who was an alcoholic, and all of whose crimes had been influenced by his alcohol use, was unlikely to advance the goals of our criminal justice system in any substantial way.
  4.  Jump to essay-4392 U.S. 514 (1968). The plurality opinion by Justice Marshall, joined by Justices Black and Harlan and Chief Justice Warren, interpreted Robinson as proscribing only punishment of status, and not punishment for acts, and expressed a fear that a contrary holding would impel the Court into constitutional definitions of such matters as actus reus, mens rea, insanity, mistake, justification, and duress. Id. at 532–37. Justice White concurred, but only because the record did not show that the defendant was unable to stay out of public; like the dissent, Justice White was willing to hold that if addiction as a status may not be punished neither can the yielding to the compulsion of that addiction, whether to narcotics or to alcohol. Id. at 548. Dissenting Justices Fortas, Douglas, Brennan, and Stewart wished to adopt a rule that [c]riminal penalties may not be inflicted upon a person for being in a condition he is powerless to change. That is, one under an irresistible compulsion to drink or to take narcotics may not be punished for those acts. Id. at 554, 567.