Appeals court agrees to rehear ‘habitual drunkard’ case

A federal appeals court in Richmond will take another look at a Virginia law that lets police arrest people designated as “habitual drunkards” if they are caught with alcohol.

In August, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit challenging the law.

On Thursday, the full court agreed to reconsider the case in January.

The law dates back to the 1930s and makes it a crime for habitual drunkards to possess, consume or purchase alcohol, or even attempt to do so. Violators face up to a year in jail and fines of up to $2,500.

The Legal Aid Justice Center argued that the law punishes homeless alcoholics who have nowhere else to drink but in public, criminalizes addiction and violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The three-judge panel found that the state has a “legitimate interest” in discouraging alcohol abuse.

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 or being near open containers of alcohol.

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.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.