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Powell v. Texas - 392 U.S. 514, 88 S. Ct. 2145 (1968)


A state law that imprisons a person 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. 


Leroy Powell 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. The court made the following "findings of fact": (1) chronic alcoholism is a disease that destroys the afflicted person's will power 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) Powell is a chronic alcoholic who is afflicted by the disease of chronic alcoholism. The court ruled as a matter of law that chronic alcoholism was not a defense to the charge. The principle testimony was that of a psychiatrist, who testified that Powell, a man with a long history of arrests for drunkenness, was a "chronic alcoholic" and was subject to a "compulsion" that was "not completely overpowering," but rather, was "an exceedingly strong influence." 


Was Powell’s conviction violative of the right against Cruel and Unusual Punishment?




The Court held that there was no agreement among members of the medical community that the condition of chronic alcoholism was a disease. The district court's finding that Powell was afflicted with the disease of chronic alcoholism was problematic because the district court failed to articulate what symptoms would be required to make out a constitutional defense, should one be recognized. Powell's conviction did not warrant reversal under the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of U.S. Const. Amend. VIII because the district court did not seek to punish a mere status. Instead, it imposed a criminal sanction for public behavior that might create health and safety issues.

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