392 U.S. 514 (1968), 405, Powell v. Texas

Docket NºNo. 405
Citation392 U.S. 514, 88 S.Ct. 2145, 20 L.Ed.2d 1254
Party NamePowell v. Texas
Case DateJune 17, 1968
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 514

392 U.S. 514 (1968)

88 S.Ct. 2145, 20 L.Ed.2d 1254




No. 405

United States Supreme Court

June 17, 1968

Argued March 7, 1968




Appellant was arrested and charged with being found in a state of intoxication in a public place, in violation of Art. 477 of the Texas Penal Code. He was tried in the Corporation Court of Austin, and found guilty. He appealed to the County Court of Travis County, and, after a trial de novo, he was again found guilty. That court made the following "findings of fact": (1) chronic alcoholism is a disease which destroys the afflicted person's willpower to resist the constant, excessive use of alcohol, (2) a chronic alcoholic does not appear in public by his own volition, but under a compulsion symptomatic of the disease of chronic alcoholism, and (3) appellant is a chronic alcoholic who is afflicted by the disease of chronic alcoholism; but ruled as a matter of law that chronic alcoholism was not a defense to the charge. The principal testimony was that of a psychiatrist, who testified that appellant, a man with a long history of arrests for drunkenness, was a "chronic alcoholic" and was subject to a "compulsion" which was "not completely overpowering," but which was "an exceedingly strong influence."

Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 517-554.


1. The lower court's "findings of fact" were not such in any recognizable, traditional sense, but were merely premises of a syllogism designed to bring this case within the scope of Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962). P. 521.

2. The record here is utterly inadequate to permit the informed adjudication needed to support an important and wide-ranging new constitutional principle. Pp. 521-522.

3. There is no agreement among medical experts as to what it means to say that "alcoholism" is a "disease," or upon the "manifestations of alcoholism," or on the nature of a "compulsion." Pp.522-526.

4. Faced with the reality that there is no known generally effective method of treatment or adequate facilities or manpower

Page 515

for a full-scale attack on the enormous problem of alcoholics, it cannot be asserted that the use of the criminal process to deal with the public aspects of problem drinking can never be defended as rational. Pp. 526-530.

5. Appellant's conviction on the record in this case does not violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. Pp. 531-537.

(a) Appellant was convicted not for being a chronic alcoholic, but for being in public while drunk on a particular occasion, and thus, as distinguished from Robinson v. California, supra, was not being punished for a mere status. P. 532.

(b) It cannot be concluded, on this record and the current state of medical knowledge, that appellant suffers from such an irresistible compulsion to drink and to get drunk in public that he cannot control his performance of these acts, and thus cannot be deterred from public intoxication. In any event, this Court has never articulated a general constitutional doctrine of mens rea, as the development of the doctrine and its adjustment to changing conditions has been thought to be the province of the States. Pp. 535-536.

MR. JUSTICE BLACK, joined by MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, concluded:

1. Public drunkenness, which has been a crime throughout our history, is an offense in every State, and this Court certainly cannot strike down a State's criminal law because of the heavy burden of enforcing it. P. 538.

2. Criminal punishment provides some form of treatment, protects alcoholics from causing harm or being harmed by removing them from the streets, and serves some deterrent functions, and States should not be barred from using the criminal process in attempting to cope with the problem. Pp. 538-540.

3. Medical decisions based on clinical problems of diagnosis and treatment bear no necessary correspondence to the legal decision whether the overall objectives of criminal law can be furthered by imposing punishment, and States should not be constitutionally required to inquire as to what part of a defendant's personality is responsible for his actions and to excuse anyone whose action was the result of a "compulsion." Pp. 540-541.

4. Crimes which require the State to prove that the defendant actually committed some proscribed act do not come within the scope of Robinson v. California, supra, which is properly limited to pure status crimes. Pp. 541-544.

Page 516

5. Appellant's argument that it is cruel and unusual to punish a person who is not morally blameworthy goes beyond the Eighth Amendment's limits on the use of criminal sanctions, and would create confusion and uncertainty in areas of criminal law where our understanding is not complete. Pp. 544-546.

6. Appellant's proposed constitutional rule is not only revolutionary, but it departs from the premise that experience in making local laws by local people is the safest guide for our Nation to follow. Pp. 547-548.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE concluded:

While Robinson v. California, supra, would support the view that a chronic alcoholic with an irresistible urge to consume alcohol should not be punishable for drinking or being drunk, appellant's conviction was for the different crime of being drunk in a public place, and though appellant showed that he was to some degree compelled to drink and that he was drunk at the time of his arrest, he made no showing that he was unable to stay off the streets at that time. Pp. 548-554.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which THE CHIEF

Page 517


In late December, 1966, appellant was arrested and charged with being found in a state of intoxication in a public place, in violation of Texas Penal Code, Art. 477 (1952), which reads as follows:

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 not exceeding one hundred dollars.

Appellant was tried in the Corporation Court of Austin, Texas, found guilty, and fined $20. He appealed to the County Court at Law No. 1 of Travis County, Texas, where a trial de novo was held. His counsel urged that appellant was "afflicted with the disease of chronic alcoholism," that "his appearance in public [while drunk was] . . . not of his own volition," and, therefore, that to punish him criminally for that conduct [88 S.Ct. 2147] would be cruel and unusual, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

The trial judge in the county court, sitting without a jury, made certain findings of fact, infra at 521, but ruled as a matter of law that chronic alcoholism was not a defense to the charge. He found appellant guilty, and fined him $50. There being no further right to appeal within the Texas judicial system,1 appellant appealed to this Court; we noted probable jurisdiction. 389 U.S. 810 (1967).


The principal testimony was that of Dr. David Wade, a Fellow of the American Medical Association, duly certificated in psychiatry. His testimony consumed a total of 17 pages in the trial transcript. Five of those pages were taken up with a recitation of Dr. Wade's qualifications.

Page 518

In the next 12 pages, Dr. Wade was examined by appellant's counsel, cross-examined by the State, and reexamined by the defense, and those 12 pages contain virtually all the material developed at trial which is relevant to the constitutional issue we face here. Dr. Wade sketched the outlines of the "disease" concept of alcoholism; noted that there is no generally accepted definition of "alcoholism"; alluded to the ongoing debate within the medical profession over whether alcohol is actually physically "addicting" or merely psychologically "habituating", and concluded that, in either case a "chronic alcoholic" is an "involuntary drinker," who is "powerless not to drink," and who "loses his self control over his drinking." He testified that he had examined appellant, and that appellant is a "chronic alcoholic," who

by the time he has reached [the state of intoxication] . . . , is not able to control his behavior, and [who] . . . has reached this point because he has an uncontrollable compulsion to drink.

Dr. Wade also responded in the negative to the question whether appellant has "the willpower to resist the constant excessive consumption of alcohol." He added that, in his opinion, jailing appellant without medical attention would operate neither to rehabilitate him nor to lessen his desire for alcohol.

On cross-examination, Dr. Wade admitted that, when appellant was sober, he knew the difference between right and wrong, and he responded affirmatively to the question whether appellant's act of taking the first drink in any given instance when he was sober was a "voluntary exercise of his will." Qualifying his answer, Dr. Wade stated that

these individuals have a compulsion, and this compulsion, while not completely overpowering, is a very strong influence, an exceedingly strong influence, and this compulsion, coupled with the firm belief in their mind that they are going to be able to handle it from now on, causes their judgment to be somewhat clouded.

Page 519

Appellant testified concerning the history of his drinking problem. He reviewed his many arrests for drunkenness; testified that he was unable to stop drinking; stated that, when he was intoxicated, he had no control over his actions and could not remember them later, but that he did not become violent, and admitted that he did not remember his arrest on the occasion for which he was being tried. On cross-examination, appellant admitted that he...

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