Habitual Drunkard Case Decided by 4th Circuit
Tim Wallace, Director of Development
PLAINTIFFS’ STATEMENT ON THE FOURTH CIRCUIT DECISION IN MANNING V. CALDWELL
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA, August 8, 2018 — Today a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in Manning v. Caldwell, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s “habitual drunkard” statute, which criminalizes the possession or consumption of alcohol by homeless alcoholics. The panel affirmed the decision of the district court dismissing the case. Nevertheless, one of the judges stated in an opinion concurring in the judgment only that “[a]bsent binding circuit precedent, I would hold that [the Plaintiffs]… have alleged an Eighth Amendment violation.
Despite recognizing that “it is the practice of totalitarian regimes, not our free society, to substitute a personal characteristic for a prohibited act,” two of the three judges on the panel nonetheless found that Virginia’s interdiction statute—which relies on personal characteristics, namely alcohol addiction and homelessness, to punish the otherwise innocent activity of adult possession or consumption of alcohol—was constitutional because, in their view, it criminalizes acts, not status.
In a strongly worded opinion siding with the Plaintiffs, Judge Motz vehemently disagreed, observing that “the Commonwealth’s statutory scheme effectively targets and punishes homeless alcoholics based on their illness.” Judge Motz’s opinion states unequivocally that Virginia’s interdiction statute is unconstitutional. She concurred in the judgment “with reluctance and regret” only because of Fourth Circuit rules preventing the panel from overturning prior, even if erroneous, circuit precedent, which the panel majority itself acknowledged did not properly apply Supreme Court precedent.
“The Fourth Circuit’s decision today perpetuates an antiquated law that brands people and singles them out for punishment based on a disease,” said Elaine Poon, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center, “We will keep fighting to win relief for the thousands of people who are guilty of nothing more than being homeless and addicted to alcohol.”
The legal team is considering petitioning for en banc review by the full Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Today’s decision is here.
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 § 4.1-322), 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.
To read more about the lawsuit, or to download the briefs, go to https://www.justice4all.org/?s=drunkard .
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, 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.