Law School Case Brief
People v. Kellogg - 119 Cal. App. 4th 593, 14 Cal. Rptr. 3d 507 (2004)
Cal. Penal Code § 647(f) defines the misdemeanor offense of disorderly conduct by public intoxication as occurring when a person is found in any public place under the influence of intoxicating liquor in such a condition that he or she is unable to exercise care for his or her own safety or the safety of others, or by reason of his or her being under the influence of intoxicating liquor interferes with or obstructs or prevents the free use of any street, sidewalk, or other public way.
A homeless chronic alcoholic defendant was arrested multiple times for public intoxication and charged with three violations of Cal. Pen. Code, § 647(b). Defendant also suffered from cognitive impairment, several physical problems and possible addiction to medication. Defendant was arrested when sitting on the ground among the bushes on an embankment off the freeway, appeared to be inebriated and was largely incoherent when the police arrested him the first time. He pleaded not guilty and filed a motion to dismiss the charges. The court denied the motion to dismiss and found defendant guilty of one violation of Pen. Code, § 647(b). No rehabilitation programs were available to defendant due to his extensive, complex mental and physical condition. Defendant was ultimately sentenced to 180 days in jail. The appellate division of the superior court affirmed the trial court's denial of defendant's motion to dismiss. Defendant further appealed, arguing that § 647(f), as applied to him, constituted cruel and/or unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment and Cal. Const. art. I, § 17. Defendant asserted that his chronic alcoholism and mental condition had rendered him involuntarily homeless and that it was impossible for him to avoid being in public while intoxicated. He argued that, because his public intoxication was a result of his illness and beyond his control, it was inhumane for the State to respond to his condition by subjecting him to penal sanctions.
Was it inhumane for the State to subject defendant, who was suffering with chronic alcoholism and mental condition, to penal sanctions?
The Court held that defendant was subjected to misdemeanor culpability for being intoxicated in public in violation of Pen. Code, § 647(b), not because of his severe chronic alcoholic condition but because of his conduct that posed a safety hazard to himself and to the public. According to the Court, the state has a legitimate need to control public drunkenness when it creates a safety hazard. Penal provisions designed to protect the public safety are constitutionally permissible. In deciding whether defendant's punishment was unconstitutionally excessive, the Court considered the degree of defendant's personal culpability as compared to the amount of punishment imposed. Given defendant's impairments, to the extent that he had no choice but to be drunk in public, his culpability was low. The penal sanctions imposed on him were also correspondingly low. Given the state's interest in providing for the safety of its citizens, including defendant, the Court held that imposition of low level criminal sanctions for defendant's conduct did not tread on federal or state constitutional proscriptions against cruel and/or unusual punishment.
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