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4th Circuit Strikes Down Habitual Drunkard Statute


Elaine Poon, Managing Attorney


CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA, July 16, 2019 — Today in Manning v. Caldwell, the Fourth Circuit, sitting en banc, struck down Virginia’s statutory scheme that permitted the state to interdict and prosecute people as “habitual drunkards”—a practice that unjustly targets Virginians with alcoholism who are also homeless. The Legal Aid Justice Center and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP brought this challenge on behalf of several Plaintiffs arguing that the statute singles them out for incarceration based on their disease and their homeless status in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Fourth Circuit agreed.

The Court ruled that the term “habitual drunkard” is unconstitutionally vague under the due process clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. It found that the statute failed to provide fair notice to the public, “imposing criminal penalties on an untold number of chronically ill citizens.” The Court agreed that such vague language in a criminal statute invited arbitrary enforcement and allows for the state to “target persons, including the homeless, that state officials deem undesirable.”

Further, the Court agreed with Plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment challenge, affirming a central Constitutional value that one cannot be punished for who they are rather than what they have done. The Court stated, “What the Eighth Amendment cannot tolerate is the targeted criminalization of otherwise legal behavior that is an involuntary manifestation of an illness.”

The Legal Aid Justice Center applauded this landmark decision by the Court. “It is clear that the Court understood the heart of the issues — that the Constitution cannot allow for the criminalization of illness and homelessness. We look forward to telling our clients about this victory, so that they can pursue their lives without the constant fear of arrest and prosecution,” said Elaine Poon of the Legal Aid Justice Center.

“We are thrilled the majority in the 4th Circuit agreed with the position in our amicus, and the one affirmed in the 9th Circuit’s decision in Martin v. Boise, that it is cruel and unusual to punish homeless individuals for involuntary conduct that must take place in public because they do not have an adequate alternative,” said Eric Tars, legal director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Virginia’s cities, and other cities in the 4th Circuit, should take heed that if they want to reduce the negative impacts of homelessness on their community, the most effective, most cost-effective, and most constitutional way to do so is providing adequate housing and services. Using the criminal justice system to deal with a social service failure is not an option.”

Jonathan Marcus of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP argued the case and stated, “we applaud the Court of Appeals’ decision that Virginia’s habitual drunkard regime is unconstitutional. It is an important victory for those who suffer from the illness of alcoholism. We look forward to the development of humane and constructive solutions to the serious problems of homelessness and alcoholism that are called for by this decision.

4th Circuit Rehearing Opinion (PDF)

In March 2016, the Legal Aid Justice Center of Virginia (LAJC) and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP filed a class action lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s “habitual drunkard” statute, to the extent it criminalizes the possession or consumption of alcohol by homeless individuals suffering from alcoholism. The complaint asserts that Commonwealth’s Attorneys Offices across Virginia have used the state’s outdated “habitual drunkard” statute, or Interdiction Statute (Va. Code §§ 4.1,-305, 4.1-322, and 4.1-333), to repeatedly incarcerate homeless individuals, violating their constitutional rights by punishing homeless alcoholics for having the disease of alcoholism. It also violates their right to due process by criminalizing the possession or consumption of alcohol—an otherwise lawful activity—without required constitutional protections. The complaint also challenges the statute as unconstitutionally vague because it fails to define “habitual drunkard” and encourages arbitrary police enforcement. Virginia’s antiquated interdiction law imposes penalties far beyond the state law prohibiting public intoxication, which results in only a small fine. The Interdiction Statute, by contrast, allows a Commonwealth’s attorney to petition the circuit court to declare someone a “habitual drunkard.” Once given this stigmatizing label, that person is subject to up to a year in jail if caught simply possessing alcohol.
About the Legal Aid Justice Center

The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, workers’ rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.

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