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Wed Jul 17, 2019, 11:07 AM

Deeply divided federal appeals court finds Virginia's 'habitual drunkard' law unconstitutional

Deeply divided federal appeals court finds Virginia's 'habitual drunkard' law unconstitutional

By Frank Green Richmond Times-Dispatch 19 hrs ago

RICHMOND — A closely and harshly divided 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday struck down Virginia’s so-called habitual drunkard law as unconstitutional. ... In an 8-7 decision, the judges of the Richmond-based court reversed a lower court judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit that alleged the law targets homeless people with alcoholism because of their status — as homeless and suffering from a disease that compels them to drink alcohol — rather than a crime.

A U.S. District Court judge in Roanoke, where the state law has been frequently used, and a three-judge panel of the appeals court have upheld the constitutionality of the statute, concluding that it criminalizes acts, not a status. ... The law allows a circuit judge to civilly find someone to be a “habitual drunkard” who could be criminally prosecuted for possessing or consuming alcohol, or attempting to do so.

The Legal Aid Justice Center and a Washington law firm brought the class-action suit, alleging the law violates constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment, equal protection under the law and due process. They appealed the three-judge panel’s ruling to the entire court, which heard arguments in January.

The majority opinion on Tuesday, written by judges Diana Gribbon Motz and Barbara Milano Keenan, concludes that “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. ... “Police officers, prosecutors, and even state circuit court judges likely will have differing perceptions regarding what frequency of drunkenness exceeds the necessary threshold for a person to be considered an ‘habitual drunkard,’ ” wrote that majority.

The majority also found, “What the Eighth Amendment cannot tolerate is the targeted criminalization of otherwise legal behavior that is an involuntary manifestation of an illness.” ... In a strongly worded dissent, Judge Harvie Wilkinson, joined by five other judges, wrote, “It is hard to believe a single decision could inflict more damage, but this one proceeds to do just that. ... “This decision is an affront to our legal traditions. It leaves states less able to enact prophylactic civil laws and sanctions in order to forestall more serious crimes,” he wrote.

Wilkinson wrote that “if human behavior is viewed as something over which human beings lack control, and for which they are not responsible, the implications are boundless.” ... Wilkinson added that the same could be said of sex offenders, child abusers, stalkers and domestic abusers, “and others driven by impulses they were allegedly powerless to check.”

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