Powell v. Texas

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Powell v. Texas
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued March 7, 1968
Decided June 17, 1968
Full case name Powell v. Texas
Citations 392 U.S. 514 (more)
Prior history Appeal from the County Court at Law No. 1 of Travis County, Texas.
Holding
The Texas law making it a crime of public intoxication did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Marshall, joined by Warren, Black, Harlan
Concurrence Black, joined by Harlan
Concurrence White
Dissent Fortas, joined by Douglas, Brennan, Stewart
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends. VIII

Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514 (1968), was a United States Supreme Court case which ruled that a Texas statute criminalizing public intoxication did not violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. It was a 5-4 decision, and the majority opinion was by Justice Thurgood Marshall. Justice Hugo Black and Byron White each wrote separate concurring opinions, and Justice Abe Fortas dissented.

Background[edit]

The defendant, Leroy Powell, worked in a tavern shining shoes, for which he received approximately $12/week. Though Powell had a family he provided no support to them; instead, he would use his paycheck to buy wine, which he drank daily, and about once a week to the point of intoxication.[1]

Powell was no stranger to the court system; "appellant had been convicted of public intoxication approximately 100 times since 1949, primarily in Travis County, Texas" (though he had a few convictions in neighboring Bastrop County, Texas). Each time, he would be fined $20 (for Travis County offenses) or $25 (for Bastrop County offenses); he would almost always have no means to pay the fine and was thus obliged to work off the fine in jail at the rate of $5/day.[2]

In the specific case, Powell was arrested in Travis County in late December 1966 on yet another public intoxication charge. His case was heard before the Corporation Court of Austin, Texas (what the Austin municipal court was then called); Powell was once again found guilty and was once again fined $20. This time, though, his defense counsel appealed the conviction to the Travis County Court of Law No. 1 on the grounds that Powell could not be arrested for being an alcoholic. The County Court heard the case de novo and Powell was again found guilty, and fined him $50. As no further appeals were available for Powell within the Texas judicial system, his counsel appealed to the United States Supreme Court.[3]

Opinion of the Court[edit]

Plurality Opinion[edit]

Four members of the Court concluded that Powell, the defendant who was convicted of public intoxication, "was convicted, not for being a chronic alcoholic, but for being in public while drunk on a particular occasion." Therefore, the Texas statute was not criminalizing the condition of alcoholism alone, but instead punishing the defendant for his public behavior. The majority distinguished the case from the earlier case Robinson v. California, which ruled that drug addiction alone as a disease could not be criminalized.

Concurring Opinions[edit]

Justice Black, joined by Justice Harlan, wrote that striking down public intoxication laws "would significantly limit the States in their efforts to deal with a widespread and important social problem and would do so by announcing a revolutionary doctrine of constitutional law that would also tightly restrict state power to deal with a wide variety of other harmful conduct."

Justice White wrote that there was no Constitutional violation for being arrested while intoxicated in public, and therefore the conviction should stand.

Dissenting Opinion[edit]

Justice Fortas, writing for the dissent, argued that chronic alcoholism was a disease, and in his opinion was no different than the case in Robinson which involved narcotic addiction. Therefore, regardless of where the intoxication took place, in his opinion Powell should not have been convicted.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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