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The Mark of a Criminal: “Vag Addicts,” Police Power, and Civil Rights in Postwar America

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. 

In 1950, twenty-eight-year old Bettye Coleman, a black Los Angeleno, was arrested by police for being an “addict” in public. Bettye lived close to the downtown Temple district, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood—and one that the Los Angeles Police Department patrolled more heavily than nearly any other in the city, except for black neighborhoods south and west of downtown.

One afternoon, Bettye and her friends Ray and Manuel sat in a parked car, waiting to spot someone on the street who could sell them heroin. Suddenly, LAPD officers knocked on their door. “What are you doing here?” As Bettye stammered an excuse—“I think we’re having trouble with the car”—the officer reached through the window, grabbed her arm, and forcibly pushed up her sleeve. Revealed underneath were “fresh” hypodermic needle marks from an earlier fix. “Get out,” the officer said. Manuel took off running, but the police pinned Ray to the ground. Both Bettye and Ray were taken into custody. In the interrogation room, officers tried to flip Bettye against Manuel, whom they believed to be a distributor. After discovering that Bettye had no criminal record, the police let her go—with a warning that she should “get out of Temple Street” or would live to regret it. They would “get that little son of a bitch,” Manuel, another way. 

Two years later, Bettye was arrested on the same charge. That time, she went to jail for 90 days. 

The statute under which Bettye and Ray were arrested was Section 11721 of the California Health and Safety Code. It held that any person guilty of “unlawfully us[ing] or be[ing] addicted to the unlawful use of narcotics” had committed a crime punishable by a jail sentence of 90 days to one year, followed by a maximum of five years probation. Criminal justice officials referred to the charge as a “vag addict” case, or “vagrant addict.” Bettye and other narcotics users called them “marks arrests,” since the evidence used against them in court was the presence of needle marks somewhere on their body. California law did not distinguish between illicit drug use and addiction, reflective of an era that rejected the notion that people might use drugs recreationally. The “vag addict” statute also collapsed past and present “criminal” acts into a perpetual status of illegality—once a person’s arms had been scarred by needle marks, they were vulnerable to the charge of addiction even if they had since quit using heroin. 

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Chief William Parker, far left, and LAPD officers, 1954

Of course, not every resident of Los Angeles was as vulnerable to the charge as others. Under the leadership of Chief William Parker in the 1950s and 1960s, the LAPD used vagrancy and narcotics laws to target black and Mexican American residents, as well as to enforce racial segregation in the city more broadly. Glenn Souza, a former LAPD officer who served in the 1950s, remembered the force as “a mercenary army unofficially empowered to arrest anyone at any time for any cause”—most often black men aged 25 to 30 years old for public drunkenness or for having “marks.” According to Souza, police also used these charges to justify arresting people of color for crossing the residential boundaries of segregation “after dark without a strongly documented purpose.”

In one such case in 1960, LAPD officers arrested Lawrence Robinson, a 25-year-old black veteran, as a “vag addict” after pulling over the car—in which he was a passenger—in a mostly white neighborhood. After officers failed to find evidence of wrongdoing, they searched the bodies of all four passengers by flashlight, looking for marks. They found some on Robinson’s forearm. Soon after, Robinson was sent to jail. 

Vagrancy laws have a long history of being used to harass and imprison people deemed troublesome or dangerous in a particular moment. In a sense, they exist for just that purpose—for the crime of vagrancy, which, in the words of one legal scholar, “consists of being a certain kind of person rather than…having done or failed to do certain acts.” As such, these laws afford police officers an enormous amount of discretionary power. Under twentieth-century vagrancy statutes alone, police have arrested black sharecroppers, union members on strike, suspected Communists, lesbians and gay men, and civil rights marchers. “The vagrancy law,” legal historian Risa L. Goluboff argues, has been “the go-to response to anyone who threatened to move ‘out of place’… whether that be socially, culturally, politically, racially, sexually, economically, or spatially.” 

Around the time of Bettye Coleman’s first marks arrest, activist lawyers had started to join grassroots campaigns against police brutality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with the intent of striking down the state’s expansive vagrancy law. The first successful court challenges specifically targeted the statutes about drunkenness and marks—likely because mainstream ideas about alcoholism, addiction, and recovery had changed dramatically in the postwar years. Mainly due to the popularity of Alcoholics Anonymous (and its burgeoning addict offshoots), more Americans incorporated the idea of a lifelong process of recovery into their framework of addiction; repeated stints in jail struck many as not only harsh but futile, even counterproductive. In 1960, the California Supreme Court determined that the “common drunk” provision in the state’s vagrancy laws was unconstitutional. Two years later, Lawrence Robinson’s “marks” case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

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Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1962

In Robinson v. California, the Court struck down California’s “vag addict” provision—Section 11721. Because “narcotic addition is an illness,” Justice Potter Stewart wrote, “a law which made a criminal offense of such a disease would doubtless be universally thought to be an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.” Unfortunately, Lawrence Robinson did not get to enjoy the victory. He had died a year earlier—unbeknownst to the Supreme Court—alone, in an alley, from what authorities called a “probable overdose of narcotics.” 

Moreover, the exact nature of the “victory” is still difficult to parse. In Robinson, the Court also gave its approval to a different form of state control: “compulsory treatment, involving quarantine, confinement, or sequestration.” This system aligned perfectly with the direction that California lawmakers had already decided to go. In 1961, the year before the Robinson decision, the state legislature provided for the civil commitment of addicts, complete with the establishment of a brand new prison-hospital for narcotics offenders and county “follow up” units which mandated drug testing and group therapy as conditions of parole. 

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California Rehabilitation Center, located on the grounds of a former resort, immortalized in The Eagle’s song, “Hotel California”

Meanwhile, the text of Section 11721 hardly changed. In 1963, the California legislature removed language making it illegal to “be addicted to the use of narcotics,” but still forbade “use” and “be[ing] under the influence of narcotics.” Offenders were still sent to jail—or, after the California Rehabilitation Center opened in 1962, civilly committed to receive mandatory treatment.



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