The Legal Aid Justice Center filed a class action lawsuit Thursday taking aim at a statewide statute that they say targets homeless people suffering from alcoholism.
Together with a New York-based law firm, the Charlottesville-based center filed the federal suit in Roanoke, alleging that prosecutors around the state have used the “habitual drunkard” statute to unduly punish homeless individuals with alcoholism by criminalizing their possession or consumption of alcohol.
According to Virginia Code, the statute allows a court to label anyone residing in its jurisdiction a “habitual drunkard” if they have been convicted of operating a vehicle while intoxicated or “shown himself to be an habitual drunkard,” and can thereby “interdict,” or prohibit, the sale of alcohol to that person under penalty of up to a year in jail. The suit states that the “antiquated” law has been predominantly used by prosecutors to “repeatedly incarcerate homeless individuals, violating their constitutional rights by punishing homeless alcoholics for having the disease of alcoholism.”
The only other state in America that currently has a similar law to Virginia’s “habitual drunkard” statute is Utah.
“This law is a relic from another time, before we understood that alcoholism is a chronic disease that requires treatment and not incarceration,” said Mary Bauer, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Throwing homeless people in jail instead of offering them treatment they need is cruel and, we strongly believe, unconstitutional.”
The suit further challenges the statute’s “unconstitutionally vague” definition of what constitutes a “habitual drunkard,” saying it encourages arbitrary police enforcement. According to the justice center, the statute imposes penalties that far exceed a standard penalty for public intoxication, which usually only results in a fine, for even the most minor of violations by individuals with the “stigmatizing label.”
“They don’t have to be causing a disturbance, or even be intoxicated,” said Mary Francis Charlton, an attorney with the justice center. “In fact, several of our clients have been arrested simply for allegedly smelling like alcohol while walking down the street.”
While incarcerating alcoholics does force them to be sober for a period of time, it doesn’t deal with the underlying issue, Charlton said.
“Research and common experience shows that [repeated incarceration] is not effective at treating alcoholism,” said Charlton. “Lasting sobriety is achievable with treatment, regular engagement and recovery-oriented activities.”
The lawsuit names two commonwealth’s attorneys as defendants — David Caldwell of Roanoke and Michael Herring of Richmond — with five homeless individuals from those two areas listed as plaintiffs. Caldwell and Herring are specified as standing individually and on behalf of “all other commonwealth’s attorneys similarly situated,” as the lawsuit targets interdictions in multiple localities across Virginia. Neither Caldwell nor Herring could be reached for comment Thursday.
According to data from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, more than 1,000 “habitual drunkards” in 58 jurisdictions in Virginia had interdictions between 2010 and 2015, including one in Albemarle County. The county’s prosecutor could not be reached for comment on the matter. Virginia Beach accounted for more than half of those individuals, while Roanoke came in second, with 140, and Richmond had at least nine.
The lawsuit alleges that the statute violates the Eighth Amendment right to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, and takes away the constitutional right to due process, as a person subject to interdiction does not have the right to counsel or trial by jury, and the government is not required to prove the elements of “quasi-criminal” at an interdiction hearing beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Most times, [the accused] aren’t even present at the hearing,” said Charlton.
Bryan Manning, a plaintiff in the case who has been jailed more than 30 times under the statute, said in a news release from the justice center that he has spent the majority of the last five years in Roanoke City Jail because of his status as a “habitual drunkard.”
“I’m tired of being harassed by the police because I’ve been labeled a ‘habitual drunkard,’” Manning 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 had a negative impact on Manning’s mental health problems, he said, adding that “my psychiatric medications and treatment stop when I get locked up.”
Charlottesville may not be explicitly subject to the lawsuit; Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman said his office does not use the “habitual drunkard” statute, finding that it creates complications similar to those laid out in the lawsuit.
“We have always found that people are going to get [alcohol] anyway,” he said. “What you need to do is deal with the addiction.”
Chapman said the statute theoretically provides legal leverage to the court in addressing substance abuse problems in individuals, but that ultimately, “no amount of leverage is going to produce a long-term solution,” and that alternative avenues, such as enhancing mental health treatment, would lead to better results.
If the judge rules in favor of the plaintiffs, use of the interdiction statute on homeless alcoholics will be considered a rights violation, and prosecutors around the state will be admonished not to enforce it.
“We are wasting taxpayer money on warehousing homeless individuals in jail cells, not to mention violating their constitutional rights,” said Amy Walters, another attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Alcohol addiction is a public health problem, not a criminal justice problem.”