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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Lawsuit charges Virginia's 'habitual drunkard' law is unconstitutional

Virginia’s “habitual drunkard” statute violates the commonwealth’s constitution by criminalizing the consumption of alcohol by homeless alcoholics, charges a class action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

The complaint, filed in federal court earlier this month, asserts that commonwealth’s attorneys offices have used the Interdiction Statute (Va. Code § 4.1-322) to repeatedly incarcerate homeless individuals, violating their constitutional rights by punishing them for having the disease of alcoholism.

The statute also violates individuals’ right to due process by criminalizing the possession or consumption of alcohol – an otherwise lawful activity – without required constitutional protections, the lawsuit charges. In addition, the plaintiffs challenge the statute as unconstitutionally vague because it fails to define “habitual drunkard” and encourages arbitrary police enforcement.

Under Virginia law, people convicted of public intoxication are subject to a small fine. The antiquated interdiction law, however, goes far beyond that by allowing a commonwealth’s attorney to petition the circuit court to declare someone a “habitual drunkard,” the plaintiffs say. Once given this stigmatizing label, that person is subject to up to a year in jail if caught simply possessing alcohol.  

“This is a civil rights violation, plain and simple,” said Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Mary Frances Charlton. “The interdiction proceedings create a crime where none exists and place criminal sanctions on individuals who are guilty of nothing more than being homeless and addicted to alcohol – ultimately placing even more obstacles between them and the help that they severely need.” 

According to data reported to the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in fall 2015, 60 cities and counties across Virginia have interdicted more than 1,220 “habitual drunkards” in the past nine years.

Bryan Manning, one of the plaintiffs in the class action suit, has been jailed more than 30 times under the interdiction law, spending the majority of the last five years in the Roanoke City Jail. “I’m tired of being harassed by the police because I’ve been labeled a ‘habitual drunkard,’” he said.. “Since I don’t have a home, every time I go to jail I lose what little possessions I have.”

The frequent incarcerations have worsened Manning’s mental health problems, as he loses access to psychiatric medications and treatment while locked up.

1 comment:

  1. We need Virginia’s “habitual drunkard” statute. it s the best and last alternative to extreme alcoholics who are a danger to themselves and others and the mental health system refuses or does not force their treatment or involuntary commitment.