ON July 16, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond struck down Virginia’s “habitual drunkard” law, which allowed lower court judges to civilly identify certain individuals for criminal prosecution for merely possessing or consuming alcoholic beverages.
The four plaintiffs in the case from Richmond and Roanoke, who had repeatedly been arrested and prosecuted as “habitual drunkards,” argued that they were being targeted for their homeless status, not for any crimes they committed.
In a sharply divided 8–7 ruling, the appellate court agreed.
“The lack of any guidelines or standards regarding who qualifies as an ‘habitual drunkard’ compels the conclusion that use of the term in the challenged scheme is unconstitutionally vague,” the appeals court ruled, adding that “to survive a vagueness challenge, a statute must give a person of ordinary intelligence adequate notice of what conduct is prohibited and must include sufficient standards to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
“The vagueness that dooms this ordinance is not the product of uncertainty about the normal meaning of [habitual drunkard], but rather about what specific conduct is covered by the statute and what is not,” according to the ruling.
The justices compared it to statutes that clearly define public intoxication as an impairment of one’s speech or physical movement. However, neither the Virginia Code nor case law defines “habitual drunkard,” the court pointed out. Yet a person so identified could be prosecuted criminally and incarcerated for up to 12 months just for being seen with alcohol, which, for everybody else over the age of 21, is a perfectly legal substance.
Lawmakers were apparently not focusing on constitutional rights when they passed this fatally flawed bill.
“In practice,” the decision stated, “it functions as a tool to rid the streets of particularly vulnerable, unwanted alcoholics,” supporting the “plaintiffs’ assertion that the law was designed to target persons, including the homeless, that state officials deem undesirable,” but who are not chargeable with any particular offense.
The habitual drunkard law is yet another clumsy example of trying to legislate away a social problem. Such efforts inevitably fail, as Prohibition did in the 1920s and the federal government’s disastrous “war on drugs” has over the last half century. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2017—compared with less than 10,000 in 1980.
However, there’s another side to this issue that needs to be addressed.
A federal appeals court in San Francisco also ruled last September that municipalities cannot arrest homeless alcoholics and drug addicts for sleeping on the streets if they are not offered space in a homeless shelter, but could penalize them if they refuse to accept the housing that is offered.
Even though San Francisco spends $300 million annually on its homeless problem, NPR reported that its “streets are so filthy, that at least one infectious disease expert has compared the city to some of the dirtiest slums in the world.”
Homeless or mentally ill people caught in the grip of alcoholism and/or drug addiction should not be harassed by the police, but they should not be allowed to threaten public health and safety either.
In cities like San Francisco, the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, with drug addicts overdosing in schoolyards and unsanitary piles of human feces and used needles subjecting residents and tourists to medieval infectious diseases like typhus and trench fever. Judges and public officials have a duty to protect their rights as well.
Crafting new legislation in Virginia that not only protects habitual drunkards’ and other substance abusers’ constitutional rights, including the right to slowly kill themselves if they choose, but also protects the public from the worst consequences of their self-destructive behavior, should be one of the General Assembly’s top priorities.