Advocates Say Law Criminalizing Addiction in Virginia is Unconstitutional

Advocates supporting the repeal say that Virginia is one of only two states, if not the only state, with such a law, which unfairly targets people who are homeless. A “habitual drunkard” is defined as a person with a history of alcohol-related offenses may be designated through a civil hearing before a judge as a “habitual drunkard.”

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This law imposes penalties far beyond general restrictions on public intoxication, which result in a small fine.

Four men are challenging a Virginia law that labels people as “habitual drunkards.” Ryan Williams, Bryan Manning, Richard Deckerhoff, and Richard Eugene Walls are homeless and struggling with alcoholism. They’ve been arrested in the past for being near an empty beer can, smelling like alcohol, being in a Walmart where alcohol is sold, and sleeping in a park bathroom. The “habitual drunkard” law, they say, unconstitutionally criminalizes addiction and treats them differently than other heavy drinkers because they are homeless.

Advocates supporting the repeal say that Virginia is one of only two states, if not the only state, with such a law, which unfairly targets people who are homeless. A “habitual drunkard” is defined as a person with a history of alcohol-related offenses may be designated through a civil hearing before a judge as a “habitual drunkard.” Individuals labeled as such can then be criminally prosecuted—sent to jail for up to 12 months and fined up to $2,500—for buying, drinking or possessing alcohol.

This law imposes penalties far beyond general restrictions on public intoxication, which result in a small fine. Once a person is designated in court as a “habitual drunkard,” it is a crime for that person to consume or have alcohol. In the experiences of the four men, simply being near alcohol is enough to warrant unfair arrest and punishment.

The four men have each been prosecuted in Virginia at least 11 times. They are only a few of the many people who face unfair consequences for their addiction. From 2007 to 2015, at least 1,220 people were tagged with the label, and the state recorded 4,743 criminal convictions of those people for consuming or having alcohol, according to The Washington Post.

Their attorney, Elaine Poon, of the Legal Aid Justice Center, told the Post, “These types of laws are simply an excuse to discriminate against the undesirables of society and a pretext to provide law enforcement with a tool to go after people they consider a nuisance. My clients suffer horribly from alcoholism, mental illness, and medical problems, and putting them in jail without any treatment could actually kill them.”

The three-judge appeals court in Richmond initially upheld the law, saying it was a “prophylactic measure” that could help “to forestall more serious criminal misconduct.” Two of the judges agreed that possessing alcohol, not being a person with alcohol use disorder, gave rise to criminal sanctions.

The third judge, Judge Diana Motz, reluctantly signed her agreement. However, she wrote, the law is unconstitutional because it “effectively targets and punishes homeless alcoholics based on their illness. The constitutional challenge we confront today deals only with a law that targets a group of vulnerable, sick people for special punishment based on otherwise legal behavior (drinking alcohol) that is an involuntary manifestation of their illness.”

The court did not say when it would issue a ruling in the case.

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