Powell v. Texas
Decided on June 17, 1968; 392 US 514


Alcoholic argues his punishment for public intoxication is cruel and unusual

I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (8th Amendment), Cruel and Unusual Punishment, 14th Amendment

B. Legal Question Presented:

Did Powell's arrest and punishment for being found in a state of intoxication in a public place amount to cruel and unusual in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

Appellant Leroy Powell was arrested and charged with being intoxicated in a public place, in violation of a Texas Penal Code provision. He was tried in the Corporation Court in Austin, found guilty, and fined $20.

Appellant appealed to the County Court of Travis County, and after a new trial he was again found guilty. Appellant argued that he suffered from a disease of chronic alcoholism and that his punishment for the mere status of being an alcoholic was cruel and unusual, in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.  The judge in county court ruled that as a matter of law, chronic alcoholism was not a defense to the violation, and fined him $50.  Appellant appealed to the US Supreme Court.
B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Don L. Davis argued the cause for appellant, pro hac vice.  With him on the brief was Tom H. Davis. David Robinson, Jr., argued the cause for appellee.  With him on the briefs were Crawford C. Martin, Attorney General of Texas, George M. Cowden, First Assistant Attorney General, R. L. Lattimore and Lonny F. Zwiener, Assistant Attorneys General and A. J. Carubbi, Jr.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Peter Barton Hutt argued the cause for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae, urging reversal. With him on the brief was Richard A. Merrill.

Briefs of amici curiae, urging reversal, were filed by Paul O'Dwyer for the National Council on Alcoholism and by the Philadelphia Diagnostic and Relocation Services Corp.
No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Appellee.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"Appellant... seeks to come within the application of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause announced in Robinson v. California, which involved a state statute making it a crime to 'be addicted to the use of narcotics.' This Court held there that 'a state law which imprisons a person thus afflicted [with narcotic addiction] 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...'

On its face the present case does not fall within that holding, since appellant was convicted, not for being a chronic alcoholic, but for being in public while drunk on a particular occasion. The State of Texas thus has not sought to punish a mere status, as California did in Robinson; nor has it attempted to regulate appellant's behavior in the privacy of his own home.  Rather, it has imposed upon appellant a criminal sanction for public behavior which may create substantial health and safety hazards, both for appellant and for members of the general public, and which offends the moral and esthetic sensibilities of a large segment of the community...

Traditional common-law concepts of personal accountability and essential considerations of federalism lead us to disagree with appellant. We are unable to conclude, on the state of this record or on the current state of medical knowledge, that chronic alcoholics in general, and Leroy Powell in particular, suffer from such an irresistible compulsion to drink and to get drunk in public that they are utterly unable to control their performance of either or both of these acts and thus cannot be deterred at all from public intoxication...

We cannot cast aside the centuries-long evolution of the collection of interlocking and overlapping concepts which the common law has utilized to assess the moral accountability of an individual for his antisocial deeds. Affirmed."
Justice Vote: 4 Pro vs. 5 Con

  • Marshall, T. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Warren, E. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Black, H. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Con (Joined Black's concurrence)
  • Fortas, A. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined Fortas' dissent)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined Fortas' dissent)
  • Stewart, J. Pro (Joined Fortas' dissent)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU filed as amicus curiae urging reversal, the US Supreme Court affirmed the County Court of Travis County's judgment in a 5-4 vote giving the ACLU an apparent loss.