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Virginia's Old "Habitual Drunkard" Law Brought to the Forefront Again

Posted by Bryan Jones | Jul 18, 2019 | 0 Comments

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled (vote 8 to 7) that a lawsuit challenging Virginia's interdiction law can move forward. This isn't a law that would affect a large number of people, but those who are affected face serious consequences.

The Virginia attorney general's office is defending the law, arguing that the state has a legitimate purpose to discourage the abuse of alcohol and drugs and that this law aids in that objective. Here's what the law says and how it can affect a person, if not you then possibly a loved one.

What is Virginia's Habitual Drunkard law?

The Habitual Drunkard law, as it is known, works in this way:

  • Prosecutors ask a judge to declare a person a "habitual drunkard."
  • After designated as such, the police can arrest the person for merely smelling of alcohol or possessing alcohol without necessarily being publicly intoxicated because the law forbids designated persons to possess, consume, or purchase alcohol or attempt to do any of the latter.
  • A conviction of the offense can result in a 12-month jail sentence.

The difference between this law and an arrest for public intoxication is this: a conviction of public intoxication does not result in jail time. The Plaintiffs-Appellants argue this law will effectively, disproportionately, and wrongly impact homeless persons.

Why is Virginia's Habitual Drunkard law being challenged in the courts?

As many know – including the medical profession – addiction is a disease. Whether it's an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or gaming (also known as video game disorder), that addiction is a complex disease hard to treat. Jail has proven to be an ineffective solution to addiction. In most cases, treatment is the solution. 

As many know, addiction leads to homelessness (and vice versa). If you have a close relative or close friend who has an addiction, then you know how serious the disease is. It destroys lives. The threat of jail will not deter "habitual drunkard" from trying to get alcohol or drugs, but it can make his or her situation worse.

That's not justice, and that's in part what the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty argues as an Amicus Supporting Appellant and it's what the Plaintiffs-Appellants argue, too. The majority of the 4th Circuit Court agreed. In its opinion, Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Barbara Milano Keenan, writing for the majority, said:

While necessary changes in the law may not alter the choices that they make or enhance the quality of their life, at least the government will not be compounding their problems by subjecting them to incarceration based on the arbitrary enforcement of ambiguous laws or, at best, the targeted criminalization of their illnesses.

Michael Kelly, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, stated that the attorney general's office will:

review the court's decision before deciding how best to proceed.

Contact a DUI and Criminal Defense Attorney in Charlottesville, VA Today

If you or someone you know has a substance abuse issue and finds him or herself in trouble with the law, whether it's the habitual drunkard law, public intoxication, or a DUIcontact Bryan J. Jones, LLC. Our legal staff is experienced and ready to answer your questions. 

About the Author

Bryan Jones

What I do I help people who are charged with crimes. I also help people prove their innocence even after they've been convicted of a crime. I love what I do because my own experience has shown me the value of good legal advice. My law firm is founded on the principle that good legal advice shoul...

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