Robinson v. California

Following is the case brief for Robinson v. California, Supreme Court of the United States, (1962)

Case summary for Robinson v. California:

  • Robinson was a drug addict who was convicted under a California state statute which criminalized being addicted to drugs.
  • The trial judge instructed the jury that Robinson could be convicted regardless of whether or not he was in possession of drugs.
  • After Robinson was convicted, he appealed, claiming that the state statute violated both the Eighth and 14th Amendment.
  • The Court held that the statute, which could punish a person based solely on drug addiction, was unconstitutional under the Eighth and 14th Amendment because it punished people based on their sickness as opposed to a criminal act.

Robinson v. California Case Brief

Statement of the facts:

A California state statute prohibited a person from being an addict. Robinson, a California resident, was charged under the statute. Months before his conviction, an officer noticed needle marks on Robinson’s arms and in response, Robinson admitted to earlier use. The judge instructed the jury that they had the discretion to convict Robinson if they found he had a drug addiction. The jury subsequently convicted Robinson under the state statute.

Procedural History:

Robinson appealed to the state superior court, which upheld Robinson’s conviction. Robinson then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Imprisoning a defendant based on their addiction to narcotics as prescribed by state statute, is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment.

Issue and Holding:

Does a California statute, which imprisons a person based upon their addiction to drugs, violate the 14th Amendment? Yes.


The Court reversed the lower court’s conviction.


The Court held that a state may exercise discretion when regulating drug trafficking throughout the state.

A state may pass laws which make the sale or possession of drugs punishable as a criminal offense. The state is also permitted to establish treatment or public health education programs.

In contrast, a state may not construct a state statute that criminally punishes drug addiction. The Court held that doing so violates the Eighth and 14th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Court held that imprisoning an individual even for a short term based solely on their addict status absent criminal conduct constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. An addiction to drugs is a disease, and punishing a person based on his status as an addict is close to administering punishment for a mental illness or disease.

In this case, the trial court judge instructed the jury that they could still find Robinson in violation of the statute if they decided he was addicted to drugs and finding that Robinson actually used the drugs at the alleged time was not mandatory.

Concurring or Dissenting opinion:

Concurring (Douglas):

Drug addicts, like most addicts, are suffering from a sickness. They should be regarded as sick people and possibly subjected to civil confinement for treatment purposes. Confinement by itself is not what makes imprisonment cruel and unusual punishment, but the treatment of the sick as criminals just because they are addicts.

Concurring (Harlan):

The trial court was incorrect in permitting the jury to convict Robinson on the basis that he was an addict while present in the state. Robinson’s addiction only shows his desire to use drugs. Wanting to use drugs or more generally, wanting to commit a crime is not by itself a criminal offense.

Dissenting (White):

The weight of the evidence showing that Robinson was a drug addict simultaneously shows that he used drugs often. As a result, the defendant’s conviction was not wrongfully based on his status as an addict. The conviction was instead based on the defendant’s regular use of drug, which occurred before his arrest.


This case established that drug addicts, like the mentally ill, should be treated as sick. Punishing a status as opposed to a criminal act violates the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

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