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July 17, 2019

Fascinating Fourth Circuit en banc debate over constitutional challenges to Virginia's "habitual drunkard" law

A helpful colleague made sure I saw the Fourth Circuit's split en banc ruling yesterday in Manning v. Caldwell,  No. 17-1320 (4th Cir. July 16, 2019) (available here), concerning a lawsuit challenging a peculiar Virginia law.  This AP article summarizes the ruling and provides helpful context:

A lawsuit challenging an unusual Virginia law that allows police to arrest and jail people designated as “habitual drunkards” was reinstated Tuesday by a deeply divided federal appeals court. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the challenge to Virginia’s so-called interdiction law can move forward.

The court voted 8-7 to allow the lawsuit to proceed, finding that Virginia’s law is unconstitutionally vague. The ruling from the full court reverses earlier rulings from a judge and a three-judge panel dismissing the lawsuit.

The Legal Aid Justice Center argues that the law targets homeless alcoholics and violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Virginia attorney general’s office, in defending the law, argues that the state has a legitimate interest in discouraging alcohol and drug abuse.

The law allows prosecutors to ask a civil judge to declare someone a “habitual drunkard.”  Police can then arrest that person for being publicly intoxicated, possessing alcohol or even smelling of alcohol.  Violators face up to a year in jail.

In its written opinion, the court found that the law does not give homeless people who struggle with alcohol fair notice under the law.  “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,” Judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Barbara Milano Keenan wrote for the majority.

During arguments before the 4th Circuit in January, an attorney representing people designated as “habitual drunkards” argued that the law criminalizes addiction by targeting people who are compelled to drink because they are alcoholics and are forced to drink in public because they are homeless.  People without the habitual-drunkard designation can also be arrested for public intoxication, but they don’t face any jail time.

In a strongly worded dissenting opinion, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III chastised the majority for asking the court to find “that addiction gives rise to an Eighth Amendment right to abuse dangerous substances without the imposition of any criminal sanctions.”

“As my colleagues apparently see it, consuming alcohol, even by those with a documented history of alcohol abuse, is just not the sort of conduct that warrants criminal sanctions. Given the comprehensive body of research pointing to the harms of alcohol abuse, I cannot agree,” Wilkinson wrote....

Virginia and Utah are the only two states with interdiction laws that make it a crime for people designated as habitual drunkards to possess, consume or purchase alcohol, or even attempt to do so, according to a survey of state laws done by the legal aid center.

The full opinion runs 83 pages, so I will need some time to assess whether it is as consequential a ruling as the dissent seemingly fears. But folks who follow the intersection of criminal justice and public health will surely want to check this one out.

July 17, 2019 at 11:32 AM | Permalink

Comments

The Virginia and Utah criminal laws authorizing the prosecution and imprisonment of "habitual drunkards" are in the forefront of the growing view that alcoholism and drug abuse should be viewed and treated as public health problems, not criminal violations. In Kentucky where I live, the Commonwealth has joined the side of viewing alcoholism and drug abuse as public health problems. Under Kentucky law, family members of close friends can file a civil Petition under "Casey's Act", to seek a Court Order for involuntary civil commitment for treatment. The law provides that the Commonwealth does not have to pay for the drug or alcohol abuse treatment (which may last for up to 12 months), but it must be covered by insurance or paid for out-of-pocket. Now that Medicaid covers drug and alcohol abuse treatment, paying for treatment is not so problematic as it used to be. Merely prosecuting and locking up alcoholics and addicts fails to address their underlying medical/ mental health problems and accomplishes little.

Posted by: James Gormley | Jul 17, 2019 12:23:13 PM

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