JurisdictionNorth Carolina

§ 9.04. Voluntary Act: Constitutional Law73

The United States Supreme Court has twice considered the question of whether voluntary conduct is a constitutional prerequisite to criminal punishment.

[A] Robinson v. California74

The California legislature enacted a law making it an offense, punishable by incarceration from 90 days to 1 year, for a person to "be addicted to the use of narcotics." No act by the defendant—just his present addiction—was required for conviction. The Supreme Court ruled that the statute violated the "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibitions in the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

The Court focused on the fact that the statute made the illness of drug addiction (a status that it pointed out could be contracted innocently or involuntarily) a criminal offense. The justices analogized drug addiction to other illnesses — mental illness, leprosy, venereal disease, and the common cold: If a state were to punish persons for suffering from these ailments, it would "doubtless be universally thought to be an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment." The Court believed that the same discernment should be shown the status of drug addiction.

The constitutional infirmity in this case was not that a drug addict might receive a 90-day or longer jail sentence, but rather that he could be punished at all. "Even one day in prison," the justices said, would have rendered Robinson's fate impermissible. Essentially, the Court held that, although a legislature may use criminal sanctions against the unauthorized manufacture, sale, purchase, or possession of narcotics, and may attack the social problems arising from drug addiction through health education, civil commitment, and other non-penal programs, California lacked constitutional authority to treat Robinson as a criminal solely because of his addiction.

The Robinson Court's approach to the Eighth Amendment is intriguing. Perhaps unwittingly, it invoked retributive, rather than utilitarian, values of punishment. That is, retributivism is based on the principle that punishment should not be inflicted unless a person voluntarily chooses to commit a socially harmful act; the condemnatory feature of criminal punishment should not be used against one whose only "crime" is her illness. In contrast, arguably a utilitarian would not categorically rule out the use of the criminal justice system, among other methods, to deal with drug addiction. To utilitarians, there is no wall absolutely separating civil from criminal commitment; the law should be permitted to use every weapon available to it to reduce net social pain. After all, the drug addict is likely to be a danger to the community, as she will likely have to commit crimes to support her habit. And a person who suffers from a serious illness may infect others if not separated from the community.

Essentially, the...

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