Charlottesville Group Challenging 'Habitual Drunkard' Law
The Legal Aid Justice Center has filed a lawsuit in Virginia to challenge the constitutionality of something called the "Habitual Drunkard" law.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - A Charlottesville group has filed a lawsuit in Virginia to challenge the constitutionality of something commonly called the "Habitual Drunkard" law.
Current law makes it is illegal for someone who is ruled a “habitual drunk” to consume or even possess alcohol, at the risk of jail time.
The law is supposed to be neutral on its face, meaning that it applies to everyone in the commonwealth who may be frequently drunk.
However, in practice, attorneys with the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) claim the law is mostly applied to homeless people because their alcoholism is more visible.
LAJC filed a federal class-action lawsuit Thursday morning, challenging the constitutionality of the law which the center argues is violating the homeless’ civil rights.
“It takes behavior that is common to poor people, in this case poor people who are suffering from an addiction, and it makes that behavior criminal,” said Mary Frances Charlton, staff attorney.
The center says the law is a relic of the past, when vagrancy laws were popular. Now, the medical community has realized that alcoholism is a disease.
“Doing it that way, throwing them in jail, is a criminal justice solution to what is a mental health and public health issue. You know this is a disease, this is a public health problem, and criminalizing it rather than seeking to find a policy solution that would provide treatment is simply cruel and unusual,” Charlton said.
Attorneys say homeless people are not provided an attorney at the initial hearing when they are declared a "habitual drunkard," and often are not even present at the trial and can't provide witnesses to help their case.
One of the center's clients was ruled a habitual alcoholic, and has since been convicted more than 30 times for the past six years for alcohol-related offenses.
“If you look at his criminal record, you know, no violent history anything like that. It's all about being homeless and being an alcoholic,” said Amy Walters.
While it is a class action suit, it does specifically name Don Caldwell, commonwealth's attorney for the city of Roanoke.
Caldwell says he found out about the suit from NBC29 when he was asked for a statement.
The prosecutor said that he doesn't believe the law is only applied to homeless people or is discriminatory in any way.
Caldwell, as well as lawyers with the LAJC, agrees that treatment is important for alcoholics and those with mental illness.
The question remains whether or not that treatment should be within the context of criminal justice. That'll eventually be up to a judge to decide once this case is taken up.