The Bulletin

Virginia’s ‘habitual drunkard’ law is dead

By: - August 2, 2019 5:11 pm

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

A federal appeals court ruling last month, combined with Attorney General Mark Herring’s announcement today that he won’t appeal, means Virginia’s habitual drunkard law is effectively dead.

“The General Assembly should have taken this strange and regressive law off the books a long time ago, but now that the court has done it for us I don’t see any need for the commonwealth to continue this fight,” Herring said in a statement. “Virginia can find better ways to address alcohol use disorders.”

Virginia and Utah are the only two states in the country that have allowed local judges to ban people deemed “habitual drunkards” from possessing alcohol.

The Legal Aid Justice Center, which filed the lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of homeless men living in Roanoke and Richmond, said 1,700 people were banned from possessing alcohol under the law between 2007 and 2018.

Judges in Virginia Beach handed out the bulk of the judgments, accounting for about two thirds of the people on the list.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down the law in July in a 8-7 decision, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”

Advocates said the law criminalizes illness and homelessness.

“We look forward to working with Virginia to enact constructive policies to address homelessness and addiction in our state,” said Elaine Poon, managing attorney of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Charlottesville office.

Poon said the ruling will now be sent back to district court, which will issue an order that details how it will be implemented, but “practically speaking, a few jurisdictions have already stopped enforcing this statute, including Arlington and Richmond.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.