RICHMOND — A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected a Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center challenge to a Virginia law that permits the arrest of “habitual drunkards” if they are caught possessing alcohol.
The court found that the state has a “legitimate interest” in discouraging alcohol abuse when declaring a person a habitual drinker.
The law, which dates back to the 1930s, makes it a crime for people designated as habitual drunkards to possess, consume or purchase alcohol, or even attempt to do so. In addition to up to a year in jail, violators face fines of up to $2,500.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court ruling dismissing the lawsuit. But one appeals judge criticized the law, saying it “criminalizes the otherwise legal behavior of individuals suffering from a serious illness.”
Elaine Poon, a managing attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the group is considering asking the Fourth Circuit to hold a hearing before the full court to reconsider the panel’s ruling.
“The Fourth Circuit’s decision today perpetuates an antiquated law that brands people and singles them out for punishment based on a disease,” she said. “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 Aid Justice Center argued in its lawsuit that the law criminalizes addiction, punishes homeless alcoholics who have nowhere else to drink but in public and violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
But the court said the law “does not single out homeless alcoholics for different treatment.”
“We emphasize what we hope would be obvious: it would be unlawful for the state to simply round up “undesirable” persons based on their perceived status as addicts or drunkards,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote for the panel. “It is inimical to personal liberty to bring criminal charges on the basis of who someone is”
Wilkinson said Virginia has carefully “prohibited individuals deemed at a higher risk of alcohol abuse from possessing or consuming alcohol. This includes not only habitual drunkards, but also people who have been convicted of drunk driving and those under twenty-one.”
Appeals Court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz said she voted with the other judges to uphold the law, citing binding court precedent. But she said she did “with reluctance and regret” because the law “targets a group of vulnerable, sick people for special punishment based on otherwise legal behavior (drinking alcohol) that is an involuntary manifestation of their illness.”