by Dale Chappell
An antiquated Virginia law that allows courts to label someone a “habitual drunkard,” permitting police to throw someone in jail for simply being near alcohol, was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit as constitutional, though not without criticism from the court, saying the law criminalized addiction, which is forbidden.
The vague law allows courts to label people “habitual drunkards” in a civil proceeding where the person is not guaranteed a lawyer to help. In fact, they don’t even have to be in court to be branded a drunkard. Once labeled, they face a misdemeanor charge and up to a year in jail for being near alcohol, including empty containers, even if they are not drunk.
Prosecutors argue that the law gives them leverage to convince someone with an alcohol problem to obtain treatment to avoid jail time. They say that labeling someone with an alcohol problem as a habitual drunkard helps curb alcohol abuse and promotes the “safety of Virginians.”
Opponents, however, say the lawsuit is just another way for communities to deal with people they consider a nuisance. They point to the fact that the law is typically aimed at homeless people who have had issues with alcohol.
“You can’t incarcerate your way out of addiction,” Jennifer Carroll Foy, a state representative, said. She introduced a bill in January to repeal the law, but her bill died in committee without any action.
She said people don’t consider the consequences of throwing someone in jail. “If they were on a waiting list for housing, now they’re off. If they were on disability, often times it’s cut off. If they had a job, now they’ve lost it,” she said.
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