Home­less jailed of­ten via ‘ha­bit­ual drunk­ard’ law

Non­profit’s ap­peals law­suit claims al­co­holics tar­geted

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY DENISE LAVOIE

RICH­MOND | For the past six years, Richard Walls has been in jail more of­ten than not. The long­est stretch of time he’s spent out­side a cell is 30 days.

Mr. Walls is not a hard­ened crim­i­nal, but he is what Vir­ginia calls a “ha­bit­ual drunk­ard,” a des­ig­na­tion that al­lows po­lice to ar­rest him and jail him for up to a year if he’s caught with al­co­hol.

The law, which dates back to the 1930s, is be­ing chal­lenged by the Le­gal Aid Jus­tice Cen­ter, a non­profit ad­vo­cacy group that pro­vides le­gal ser­vices to low-in­come peo­ple.

The group ac­cuses state pros­e­cu­tors of us­ing it to pun­ish home­less al­co­holics. A judge dis­missed the law­suit last year, but the group ap­pealed. The U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the 4th Cir­cuit is weigh­ing the case.

Vir­ginia and Utah are the only two states with so-called in­ter­dic­tion laws that make it a crime for peo­ple des­ig­nated as ha­bit­ual drunk­ards to pos­sess, con­sume or pur­chase al­co­hol, or even at­tempt to do so, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey of state laws done by the le­gal aid cen­ter.

Un­der the law, pros­e­cu­tors can go to court to ask a judge to de­clare some­one a ha­bit­ual drunk­ard. Once that hap­pens, po­lice can ar­rest that per­son for be­ing pub­licly in­tox­i­cated, pos­sess­ing al­co­hol, be­ing near open con­tain­ers of al­co­hol or even smelling of al­co­hol. In ad­di­tion to jail time, they face fines of up to $2,500.

Mr. Walls, 48, has been locked up at least 30 times for al­co­hol possession since be­ing given the “ha­bit­ual drunk­ard” des­ig­na­tion in 2012. He says his fa­ther was an al­co­holic who was pros­e­cuted un­der the same law and set him on the same path at a young age, when he would of­ten put moon­shine in his baby bot­tle.

“They put me in this jail to ha­rass me,” he said in a re­cent in­ter­view at the Rich­mond City Jus­tice Cen­ter, where he has been jailed for the past three months.

“I never hurt any­one in my life or com­mit­ted a felony,” he said.

Op­po­nents say the law targets home­less al­co­holics who have nowhere else to drink but in pub­lic. Peo­ple with­out the ha­bit­ual-drunk­ard des­ig­na­tion also can be ar­rested for pub­lic in­tox­i­ca­tion, but they don’t face any jail time.

From 2007 to 2015, more than 1,220 peo­ple were des­ig­nated as “ha­bit­ual drunk­ards” in Vir­ginia, ac­cord­ing to data re­ported to the Vir­ginia Depart­ment of Al­co­holic Bev­er­age Con­trol.

The law­suit al­leges that the law crim­i­nal­izes ad­dic­tion and vi­o­lates the Eighth Amend­ment pro­hi­bi­tion against cruel and un­usual pun­ish­ment. It also says the law vi­o­lates due-process rights be­cause the cases are brought in civil court and the de­fen­dants are not guar­an­teed a lawyer as they are in crim­i­nal cases.

“This crim­i­nal­izes the sta­tus of be­ing a home­less al­co­holic,” said Mary Frances Charl­ton, the lead at­tor­ney chal­leng­ing the law.

The law gives pros­e­cu­tors dis­cre­tion on when they can go to court and seek the “ha­bit­ual drunk­ard” des­ig­na­tion. It doesn’t re­quire a spe­cific num­ber of al­co­hol-re­lated of­fenses.

Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties vary on how they en­force the law. In Vir­ginia Beach, a coastal city that re­lies heav­ily on an eco­nomic boost from mil­lions of tourists, the law is ag­gres­sively en­forced. Be­tween 2007 and 2015, 616 peo­ple were des­ig­nated as “ha­bit­ual drunk­ards” there, well above any other mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Vir­ginia.

“They’ve essen­tially been or­dered by the court to stay away from al­co­hol. It’s try­ing to dry them out and get them back to some sort of nor­malcy in their life,” Vir­ginia Beach po­lice Lt. Johnny Gandy said.

“Our of­fi­cers would much rather do other things than this,” Lt. Gandy said. “We hate see­ing peo­ple de­stroy their own lives.”

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