Editor’s Note: Today’s post in honor of Black History Month comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, a visiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).
In 1962, the United States Supreme Court struck down California’s “narcotics addict” law in the case Robinson v. California. Samuel Carter McMorris, the lawyer who argued and won the case, was a fierce criminal defense lawyer for the Black community in Los Angeles during a tumultuous era. Robinson was the second of two criminal cases McMorris successfully appealed to the Supreme Court, both of them at his own expense on behalf of indigent clients. Yet McMorris has been lost to history, left without so much as a Wikipedia page.
As McMorris knew, abuse was inherent in California’s narcotics addict law. A quarter of drug arrests in Los Angeles during the 1950s and early 1960s were solely for the crime of addiction, a charge that did not even require the physical presence of drugs themselves. The testimony of an officer that he had observed injection marks on the arm of a suspect was ordinarily enough evidence for a conviction. Police freely and frequently demanded that citizens roll up their sleeves and expose the insides of their arms so officers could inspect for needle marks. This “evidence” was so conclusive in court that suspects in custody sometimes disfigured themselves by burning the area with lit cigarettes. McMorris’s legal activism helped overturn the criminalization of addiction and this type of invasive drug enforcement.
McMorris was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1920. His father, Arthur, was a policeman, and his mother, Marie, was a homemaker; Samuel had four younger sisters. When he graduated from East High School in 1937, his class named him both “most industrious” and “most conscientious.” He worked as a traveling salesman, served in the Army, then attended Ohio State University, where he attained a law degree in 1950.