Robinson vs California Case Criminal Law Example

In Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962), the Supreme Court ruled that a law may not punished a status; i.e., one may not be punished to being an alcoholic or for being addicted to drugs. However, of course, one may be punished for actions such as abusing drugs. If the defendants status “forces” the action because of his or her addiction to drugs, is “forced” by the addiction to purchase and abuse the illegal drug? Would punishing that person be unfairly punishing a status?


A California statute makes it a criminal offense for a person to “be addicted to the use of narcotics.” Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 Appeal draws into question the constitutionality of that provision of the state law, as construed by the California court.

Such regulation, it can be assumed, could take a variety of valid forms. A State might impose criminal sanctions, for example, against the unauthorized manufacture, prescription, sale, purchase, or possession of narcotics within its borders. In the interest of discouraging the violation Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 of such laws, or in the interest of the general health or welfare of its inhabitants, a State might establish a program of compulsory treatment for those addicted to narcotics.

Such a program of treatment might require periods of involuntary confinement. And penal sanctions might be imposed for failure to comply with established compulsory treatment procedures. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197,U.S. 11 A State might choose to attack the evils of narcotics traffic on broader fronts also – through public health education, for example, or by efforts to eradicate the economic and social conditions under which those evils might be thought to flourish.


The view that laws and their enforcement are effective against drug use and addiction is widespread. What, however, are the facts? A close look at the facts actually demonstrates the opposite point of view—that existing and ongoing drug policies have, from their beginnings to the present, been a contributing factor in worsening the drug problem, that punitive policies and approaches have been an almost unrelieved failure.

In December 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Act, which outlawed the sale of over-the-counter narcotic preparations and placed the addict in the hands of the physician. Whatever the intent of the law, it is clear that most addicts simply continued to receive drugs from their physician, on prescription, instead of directly from their local pharmacist. If a physician construed the administration of morphine to a patient to be within the scope of legitimate medical practice, he had the right, within the law, to maintain that addict on morphine.

On the face of it, then, the law did not change anything. It was the Supreme Court that drew a restrictive interpretation of the Harrison Act and that decided what was to constitute “legitimate” medical practice; in a series of decisions from 1919 to 1922 the court declared maintenance of an addict to be outside the scope of medical practice and therefore illegal.

However, in 1925, in the famous Linder case, the Supreme Court overturned its earlier decisions, declaring addiction per se not to be a crime and paving the way for the legality of maintenance. The court affirmed the decision in 1962, in Robinson v. California. Thus the present punitive policies are a consequence of decisions made by the Supreme Court between 1919 and 1922, decisions that were superseded and reversed by later rulings A good case could therefore be made for the unconstitutionality of present legal policies.


Punishment appears to have virtually no effect on deterring the addict from using drugs after his release. Prison is clearly not the answer. Because addiction is currently defined as a disease, addicts must be “treated” (which in the United States is more often coercive than voluntary), and “cured” (which is defined as remaining abstinent). However, the well-known weakness of drug treatment is that a large majority of patients will not reach this goal. This is also true in the treatment of alcoholics and addicted cigarette smokers.

Drug users often will fail to fulfill their conditions of probation or requirements set by a drug court, which results in incarceration or further coerced treatment. In short, the range of valid situations under which a State might make in this area law is undoubtedly a wide one, and the wisdom of any particular choice within the allowable spectrum is not for us to decide. Upon that premise we turn to the California law in issue here.