(Updated at 5:15 p.m.) Courts in Arlington County will no longer legally declare people drunks and arrest them for drinking alcohol after a federal court ruled the old law unconstitutional.
A full panel of judges on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a state law called “interdiction” which allows counties to label people “habitual drunkards” and prosecute them for having or drinking alcohol. The judges ruled 8-7 last week that the law left the meaning of habitual drunkards “unconstitutionally vague” and constituted cruel and unusual punishment — a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“We hope that this means that our clients can have the debilitating label ‘habitual drunkard’ lifted from them and they can move through their lives without constant fear of prosecution,” said Elaine Poon, the managing attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center which has helped lead a class-action fight in court to overturn the law for the last three years.
Prosecutors in Arlington this week dismissed seven active cases brought under the nullified law, and police have suspended enforcement — though laws against public drunkenness and other alcohol-related crimes remain on the books.
“In accordance with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruling, the Arlington County Police Department has suspended enforcement of the Virginia Code sections related to alcohol interdiction,” said ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage. “No arrests or charges will be sought in relation to those code sections.”
Brad Haywood, Arlington’s Chief Public Defender, said attorneys in his office were notified about the change Thursday morning when they showed up to court, and his office was “ecstatic” to hear the news last week.
“This has been an issue that defense attorneys and social workers have been fighting for decades,” he said. “Since the first day I’ve worked a public defender 15 years ago there were concerted efforts to overturn this law.”
The case, Manning v. Caldwell, is named after Roanoke man Bryan Manning. A judge declared Manning a “drunkard” nine years ago under the interdiction statute without Manning present because the man, who is homeless and had struggled with alcohol addiction for several years, can be difficult to find. Over the next eight years, Manning racked up over 30 charges related to possessing alcohol or being suspected of drinking it, and the frequent arrests often cost him jobs and led to him losing his possessions.
Manning isn’t the only one: in Arlington, one interdicted man has been charged 37 times, per data the prosecutor’s office shared with ARLnow.
The same data shows 12 people have been interdicted in Arlington since 2015, and in total there are 50 interdicted in the county — with each person averaging 19 prosecutions. Between 1996 and 2015, there were 1,220 people legally declared drunks across Virginia, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Arlington’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos acknowledged the law was a “controversial one” yesterday, but said it was used as a method of last resort in Arlington.
“When we would prosecute, it was not an eye towards punishment, it was an eye towards getting them into a safe environment having them get some treatment,” she said.
One former public defenders in Haywood’s office, Jennifer Carroll Foy, now serves as a delegate in Virginia House of Delegates. She has tried to pass legislation twice repealing the law.
“I have introduced legislation to repeal the interdiction statute for the last two sessions because I have seen the devastation of this law firsthand as a public defender,” she told ARLnow. “Plain and simple: the interdiction statue is an antiquated law dating back to 1873 that needs to be repealed. We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of addiction. Instead of helping those who have an alcoholism problem, this law only makes the situation worse.”
There is also the matter of the people who have been interdicted previously, and have been convicted of crimes related to that classification which the court has now found to be unconstitutional.
“I’m not sure what the process is,” Stamos said when asked if her office was expunging those people’s records after the ruling. “I don’t know if it something that reaches back and nullifies. I haven’t considered that aspect of the ruling.”
Stamos said she’d soon speak to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring about interpreting the law.
Poon also said the Justice Center wasn’t sure of whether the ruling meant previous convictions could be wiped clean. She said the organization is awaiting the case’s next steps, and noted the ruling could be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
A Greater Focus on Mental Health
Stamos previously told ARLnow that if the courts threw out the interdiction statute, the county would need to “give us more money for treatment services.”
The prosecutor reiterated her stance during Thursday’s interview, saying: “the county will have to step up to look after some folks who have issue with alcohol and continue to drink and present a dangerous to themselves, and cause situations that cause people to be concerned about their well-being.”
“A lot of times the conduct that was being targeted was not directly to substances, it was more a product of mental illness,” he said. “So the ‘interdiction’ stuff confused the issue, and if anything, got in the way of a proper treatment regime.”
“What the Eighth Amendment cannot tolerate is the targeted criminalization of otherwise legal behavior that is an involuntary manifestation of an illness,” the majority wrote in a winding, 83-page memo.
The acknowledgment of the mental health component in the ruling surprised Haywood.
“The 4th circuit is not known to be particularly progressive, he said. “To get this really progressive and nuanced understanding of what addiction is, and why you can’t criminalize it, really does seem to be bigger than this case. It really does seem to reflect changing attitudes in this state.”
“A lot of them are the kinds of people who could greatly benefit from wrap-around services through the mental health docket,” he added, referring the jail-diversion program officials are developing for people with mental illnesses.
Stamos said that the federal ruling could disqualify interdicted people from accessing the program. However, a person convicted of a misdemeanor unrelated to the now-unconstitutional interdiction charges could still potentially qualify for the docket, she said.
The program, dubbed the Behavioral Health Docket, requires people to plead guilty to certain kinds of misdemeanors in order to participate in a treatment program officials hope will treat underlying health issues. The docket is currently under development, with officials expecting to finalize the structure details in September.
Savage, the police spokeswoman, said the ruling does not affect the police department’s ongoing Crisis Intervention Training which coaches officers in how to interact people experiencing a mental health crisis.
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