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

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U.S. Supreme Court

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

Powell v. Texas

No. 405

Argued March 7, 1968

Decided June 17, 1968

392 U.S. 514


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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 522-526.

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

Page 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 541-544.

Page 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 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. 392 U. S. 548-554.

Primary Holding

Chronic alcoholism is not a defense to public intoxication because it does not seem that alcoholics have such a strong compulsion to get drunk in public that they cannot control their conduct or be deterred from breaking the law in that way.


Powell was convicted of being drunk in public, but he argued that his public appearance was not voluntary because he was a chronic alcoholic. His defense was based on an Eighth Amendment claim that punishing him for the condition of chronic alcoholism would be cruel and unusual punishment. However, the medical community had not yet reached a consensus on whether alcoholism is an illness and what relationship there may be between its physical and psychological components.



  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • John Marshall Harlan II

Since there was no consensus on whether alcoholism is a disease, treatment facilities were insufficient. Sending a chronic alcoholic to jail at least gives him the opportunity to become sober in safe surroundings, and he generally would spend less time in jail than in a treatment institution to which he might be committed. Also, the statute did not prohibit alcoholism but merely being drunk in public, so it is conditioned on behavior rather than status.


  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)
  • John Marshall Harlan II

Psychological determinations, such as the impact of an amorphous compulsion on an individual's behavior, are not issues that a state can be constitutionally required to resolve in every criminal case.


  • Byron Raymond White (Author)

There is an important distinction between the compulsion to use alcohol and the compulsion to use it in public, which is the only behavior prohibited by the statute.


  • Abe Fortas (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Potter Stewart

Alcoholics cannot control their behavior, and their condition is not due to any moral weakness.

Case Commentary

If someone is aware of compulsive conduct that arises from certain situations, that person has an obligation to avoid triggering conditions if the result would be illegal.

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