In April 2011, the civil division of the Fredericksburg Circuit Court found that Bond Thompson had shown himself to be “a habitual drunkard” and interdicted him. Since then, it’s been a criminal offense—a Class 1 misdemeanor—for Thompson, 60, to purchase, consume or possess alcohol.
Thompson doesn’t remember his interdiction hearing. It’s possible he wasn’t even there. Because it was a civil proceeding, he was not guaranteed a lawyer to help him fight the allegation.
And he’s also lost track of how many times he’s been arrested and jailed for alcohol-related offenses since 2011.
“I’ve been arrested I don’t know how many times,” he said. “Ten to 15? I’ve had so many drinking charges. Every time I turn around, they lock me up.”
One time, Thompson said, he was sitting at a picnic table outside a friend’s house with a can of beer in front of him. A police car drove past and minutes later, police officers came back down the street and arrested him.
“I hadn’t even opened the beer yet, I told them,” he said. “They said, ‘It doesn’t matter, Mr. Thompson.’ ”
Another time, Thompson—who was homeless in the area off and on for about 20 years—was walking outside when police stopped him and asked if they could search his backpack. They found a can of beer and arrested him. He said he didn’t know the beer was there.
“If they catch it on my breath, they take me to jail,” he said.
Three years ago, Thompson was housed by Micah Ecumenical Ministries and since then, he said, he’s been arrested only once or twice. But it’s still illegal for him to drink, even in his own home.
Each time he’s arrested, he spends up to 60 days in jail and accrues fines and court costs. He has lost jobs and places to live as a result of being jailed.
And it hasn’t made any difference.
“I’m going to drink whether I’m on the [interdiction] list or not,” he said. “They know that. I don’t think it’s right.”
Targeting the homeless
Virginia and Utah are the only two states that have laws criminalizing the possession of alcohol by “habitual drunkards.”
Virginia had a habitual drunkard law as early as 1873. However, not every locality in the state chooses to enforce it.
Police in Fredericksburg started using interdiction in 2011 as a way to handle “the small number of people who generate the majority of alcohol-related arrests in the city,” according to a Free Lance–Star article from March of that year.
But public defenders and groups that advocate for the homeless argue that interdiction wrongly targets homeless alcoholics who have nowhere else to drink but in public.
“If you look at who is interdicted, it is people who are homeless in our community,” said Meghann Cotter, executive director of Micah Ecumenical Ministries. “Plenty of us drink and engage in behavior that others wouldn’t approve of, but the difference is we have houses to do it in.”
In 2016, the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s interdiction statute.
“Virginia’s habitual drunkard law is unconstitutional because it punishes homeless alcoholics for their alcoholism, a disease. It also violates their right to due process by criminalizing an otherwise lawful activity, possessing or consuming alcohol, without required constitutional protections,” a fact sheet about the case states.
The lawsuit specifically challenges the commonwealth’s attorneys of Richmond and Roanoke, but includes “every commonwealth attorney’s office that prosecutes this,” said Elaine Poon, managing attorney of the Legal Aid Justice Center.
“Prosecutorial discretion is a real thing and this is part of that. Prosecution has the choice not to go after this,” Poon said. “One of our allegations is that the state actually really targets our clients, the homeless individuals who are suffering from alcoholism. That’s unconstitutional, and not only is it unconstitutional, but it is really barbaric.”
Localities in Virginia interdicted 1,220 people between 2007 and 2015, according to data from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control collected by the Legal Aid Justice Center. Interdicted people were convicted of nearly 5,000 crimes between 2005 and 2015.
Fredericksburg interdicted 12 people between 2010 and 2015, the center reported. Richmond interdicted nine. Virginia Beach interdicted the most people during that time period—616. Some localities that can use interdiction choose not to, a group that includes Charlottesville.
Sarah Kirkpatrick, public information officer for the Fredericksburg Police Department, said there are 17 people in the city’s alcohol interdiction program.
Fredericksburg Commonwealth’s Attorney LaBravia Jenkins said the program is a way to manage repeat offenders.
“Here in the city, everybody lives pretty close together,” Jenkins said. “The practice of my office is not to interdict everybody who might get drunk once or twice, but people who repeatedly sort of disrupt the peace and tranquility of the city.”
She said her office won’t attempt to interdict anyone unless that person has at least 10 prior alcohol-related convictions, usually for being drunk in public.
“Even then, most people get to 15 before we actually come in and ask the court to interdict them,” she said. “At times, they can get help, although its very difficult. Interdicting them in itself is not a criminal offense, it’s if they violate the order of interdiction, then it becomes a criminal offense.”
Court records show Thompson had 20 alcohol-related convictions prior to being interdicted and about the same number after—either for possessing alcohol or drinking in public—but those violations now come with a jail sentence of between 10 days and two months.
The number of arrests decreased after he found a home. Cotter said that often happens with Micah clients on the interdiction list.
“The interesting thing is that we find if you put them in housing and provide support, it may not cure their drinking, but they stop or reduce their interactions with the police,” she said.
Jenkins said it “might be true” that interdiction laws specifically target the homeless population in some communities, such as Richmond, but said that’s not the case in Fredericksburg.
“Our homeless population is very well looked after by Micah,” she said. [Interdiction here] is not targeting the homeless—many of them are not homeless, many just want to get drunk. They can do that in the privacy of their own homes, but not out on the streets of Fredericksburg.”
According to a presentation prepared by the Fredericksburg Police Department about the city’s alcohol interdiction initiative, the goals are to “reduce the complaints, crimes, and arrests involving habitual inebriates” and “reduce the associated cost to the community (police resources, prosecution, incarceration, EMS resources, emergency room services, etc.).”
The cost of one day in jail last year was $99.45, according to the Bureau of Prison’s annual determination of the average cost of incarceration—making the cost to taxpayers of housing someone in jail for one year $36,299.
By contrast, permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless costs an average of $12,800 annually, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
According to the Police Department’s presentation, “intensive enforcement” of interdiction is encouraged. Officers are asked to “charge every violation, every time” and place the person under custodial arrest.
“Since they are interdicted, there is no reasonable expectation they will cease the offending behavior,” the presentation states.
The department also states that interdiction is “not an anti-homeless strategy” and “not aimed at punishing people just for having an addiction.”
“Avoid words or actions that could be misinterpreted by offenders and the public,” it warns.
In August, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Roanoke district court’s dismissal of the Legal Aid Justice Center case. However, the case will be argued again in January “en banc,” or before all 15 judges on 4th Circuit bench.
Fourth Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote a concurring opinion in the August decision stating that precedent caused her to rule with her colleagues on the defendants’ side but that she agrees with the plaintiffs that the interdiction statute is unconstitutional.
“The targeted criminalization of otherwise legal behavior that is an involuntary manifestation of an illness is just as clearly cruel and unusual punishment here as it was in Robinson [the 1962 Supreme Court decision that struck down a California law that criminalized narcotics addiction],” Motz wrote. “Given our precedent, I must concur in the judgment rejecting the challenge to Virginia’s statutory scheme. Because thousands of Virginians remain subject to a law that, in my view, is unconstitutional, I do so with reluctance and regret.”
Poon said she hopes the entire bench of the 4th Circuit Court will agree with Motz in January.
There will also be a movement in the Virginia General Assembly to repeal interdiction. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, a former public defender whose 2nd District includes parts of Stafford and Prince William counties, introduced a bill last session to repeal the statute and said she plans to introduce another in January.
“[Interdiction] is one of the most archaic, draconian laws we have,” she said. “What it does is criminalize addiction and it doesn’t mandate any type of services or treatment. I’ve had clients who have spent months in pretrial and months in jail as a result of a conviction for doing nothing more than smelling like alcohol.
“We all should have realized by now that we cannot incarcerate ourselves out of addiction.”
Foy, a Democrat, said the focus should be on treatment and rehabilitation for those suffering from alcoholism.
“Virginia has one of lowest recidivism and crime rates in the country, so the argument that we need [interdiction] to curb alcohol-related crime is a nullity,” she said. “What I would like to focus on are more diversion programs and pretrial services.
“[Interdiction] has a harmful effect on taxpayers and on citizens,” Foy added. “The public outcry is clear that we want to be more smart on crime, especially on the way that we handle addiction here in Virginia.”
‘MORE TO THEIR STORY’
Thompson said he understands the concept behind interdiction laws, but feels unfairly targeted by them.
“Some people are nasty drunks,” he said. “I don’t like that either. I’ve been a clean drunk. I’ve always tried to stay clean—wash my clothes, take a bath, even if it’s in the sink. I don’t like walking around stinking and dirty.”
Thompson isn’t able to work because of his health problems. But he said he “goes crazy” just sitting around.
He spends his time taking care of the house he and several roommates rent from Micah—blowing leaves from the yard and cleaning out gutters. He’s trying to get grass to grow in the yard.
“Every time I plant seeds, the doggone rain comes and washes them all away,” he said.
A pregnant cat recently showed up at the house and gave birth to three kittens, so now he buys food for them and worries about them running around outside.
He said he has thought about moving somewhere else where he isn’t known to the police.
“I’ve left from time to time, but I always come back,” he said. “I got a lot of friends here. This has been my home since 1983.”
Cotter said she doesn’t think interdiction is an effective solution to the problems of addiction and homelessness.
“The philosophy is that, ‘We’ll penalize them more and they will stop their drinking or just move to another area,’ ” she said. “But people with addiction—there’s much more to their story than, ‘Just stop.’ We have to help.”