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Arlington’s ‘Habitual Drunkards:’ Prosecutors Enforce a Controversial Law Impacting the Homeless

Over the last few years, Arlington police and prosecutors have been enforcing a law to deal with people who are frequently drunk in public — but some say the law puts incarceration over rehabilitation.

The unusual process, known as “interdiction,” allows county prosecutors to ask a judge to declare someone a “habitual drunkard” if they’ve committed several alcohol-related offenses. That designation means these “drunkards” can be charged with a misdemeanor and jailed for up to a year if they’re found so much as buying or drinking alcohol again.

Virginia and Utah are the only states in the entire country with this sort of law on the books; the commonwealth’s statute passed just before the turn of the 20th century.

Accordingly, interdictions are far from commonplace in the county — prosecutors estimate that they’ve only interdicted 12 people dating back to September 2015, and that just 50 people around Arlington are currently deemed “drunkards.”

But the latter figure is the third highest for any locality across the entire state, according to statistics compiled by the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center. Only Virginia Beach and Roanoke have more interdicted people, with 616 and 140 respectively.

And Arlington’s place on that list disturbs attorneys and advocates alike, given the brewing controversy over interdictions.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos, the county’s top prosecutor, dubs interdiction a “tool of last resort,” helping officers force people who are constantly drunk to finally get help. Yet critics believe it has a massively disproportionate impact on the homeless, and that police use it as a cudgel against people living on the streets who are struggling with substance abuse issues.

Others still argue that it robs interdicted people of due process — prosecutors request the “drunkard” designation in a civil hearing rather than a criminal one, meaning that even indigent defendants aren’t entitled to have an attorney present for the proceedings.

A legal challenge to the law on those grounds is currently working its way through federal court, while an Arlington public defender-turned-state lawmaker is working to repeal the statute in this year’s General Assembly session.

Yet, as those efforts proceed, some legal observers can’t understand why county police and prosecutors still pursue interdictions at all, given their stated commitment to other kinds of criminal justice reform.

“It’s inappropriate, unfair, and it doesn’t work,” Brad Haywood, Arlington’s chief public defender, told ARLnow. “In over 15 years as an attorney, I’ve served as a public defender in two of the few jurisdictions that still actively enforce this law. While I can think of many who owe their sobriety to residential alcohol treatment, intensive outpatient services and the expertise and compassion of mental health professionals, I can’t think of anyone who owes their sobriety to interdiction. Not a single person.”

Criminalizing the homeless, or a ‘last resort’ for addicts?

To Haywood, who has strongly criticized Stamos in the past, interdiction effectively criminalizes homelessness. After all, he points out that the law “only targets people who possess or drink alcohol while visible to others,” which essentially leaves just the homeless, many of whom turn to alcohol to make it through the day or are gripped by addiction.

“They live their entire lives in public,” Haywood said. “If they have alcohol, drink it, or are drunk, they will be seen, and under this statute, they will be arrested.”

Of course, he believes there are other “problem drinkers” around the county. As he puts it: “I read ARLnow, I know what happens on the Wilson Boulevard corridor on weekends.”

But he argues police have embraced a completely different strategy for those cases, choosing to work with popular bars to encourage stronger partnerships and prevent arrests, even though the circumstances are similar.

“If the goal of interdiction is to curb problem drinking generally, and to be equitable about it, then I’d think the Arlington bar scene would receive some attention,” Haywood said. “It hasn’t, obviously, and I’m not suggesting it should, but if it had, you’d have certainly have heard about it by now. “

However, law enforcement officials note that they’re not using interdictions indiscriminately, or targeting all homeless people. County police spokeswoman Ashley Savage says officers ask for interdictions “only in the most significant cases, where public safety resources are utilized for the same individual on a [recurring] basis.”

She adds that police take into consideration whether people are committing “criminal violations while intoxicated” as well as “concerns for the safety of the individual or those around them” in making such a decision.

“The goal is not to wantonly incarcerate people,” Stamos said. “A lot of these people are not mindful of their surroundings and can be victimized… and it’s a safety concern. We see pedestrian accidents every single day, and in some cases it’s because people are wandering into the street.”

Stamos says that, in many cases, her office only interdicts people after family and friends urge some sort of drastic step to force them to get help.

For instance, Stamos says prosecutors have interdicted four people since July 2017 — and those people had an average of 19 prosecutions each for alcohol-related offenses before being declared a “drunkard.” Prosecutors pursued a high of 37 cases against one person; the person with the smallest total had been prosecuted four times, and even then they’d been drunk during 35 different encounters with county medics over a two-year period.

“This is absolutely a last resort to hook them up with services,” Stamos said. “It’s a deprivation of liberty, but it’s done with the purpose of getting these people in jail, and getting them sober.”

It may not be a perfect solution, but county officials say they work hard to find people with substance abuse issues once they’re in jail, then get them help.

Kelly Nieman, who works on the county’s forensic jail diversion team, says Arlington has been a leader across the state in finding ways to treat inmates’ mental health issues or substance abuse problems, which are often interconnected. She hopes that helps stop people from “revolving in and out of the system.”

“We have a model to intercept individuals at junctions when they butt up against the legal system,” Nieman said. “We screen people for services and develop a release plan to get them back into the community.”

Stamos says she’d love to have another way to “induce compliance” with a treatment program for homeless addicts, but she just doesn’t see one available to her prosecutors.

“Give us another tool, and we’ll use it,” Stamos said. “If you do away with this statute, give us more money for treatment services.”

While he acknowledges that the county does good work in this area, Haywood pushes back against the notion that workers at the county jail should be “front-line caretakers for the chronically mentally ill, which is what most interdicted people actually are.” He’d rather police connect the homeless to dedicated treatment services, rather than simply sending them to jail.

“That’s a job for mental health professionals, in settings appropriate to the treatment of addiction and serious mental illness,” Haywood said. “If what we want is to help the most destitute, vulnerable people in our community, we should ensure they have access to intensive mental health and substance abuse treatment services, and stop pretending we’re making the situation better by locking sick people away so the public can’t see them.”

Challenging the process

Elaine Poon, the managing attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center, also believes that the very manner in which the statute is written makes the process punitive, not rehabilitative. Her group is leading a legal challenge to the law, arguing that interdictions create a vicious cycle for people declared “drunkards.”

Poon notes that police can — and do — pursue all manner of charges against people who are drunk in public. What sets interdictions apart is that people designated as “drunkards” can be prosecuted for simply drinking alcohol or having it in their possession, which she believes help police wrack up charge after charge against the same people.

According to Stamos’ own statistics, the 12 people her office have interdicted since 2015 have subsequently been prosecuted an average of three times each for possessing alcohol or appearing drunk in public. Poon believes this shows how interdicting someone can simply compound the time they spend in jail, criminalizing people “just for being who they are: a homeless person on the street.”

Poon feels this is all the more disturbing because many people who are declared “drunkards” don’t understand the process, and don’t have legal representation at the hearing deciding whether they’ll be interdicted in the first place. Most homeless people rely on the service of court-appointed public defenders, as they can’t afford their own lawyers, but the civil nature of the interdiction proceedings means that a judge is not required to assign them counsel.

Stamos says her prosecutors go to great lengths to find people set for an interdiction hearing, and get them to a sign paperwork acknowledging they’re aware of when they can come to court.

But Poon points out that many of her clients easily lose any forms they’ve been given by police — they don’t have homes, after all — and don’t attend the hearings, or are too mentally ill to understand a complex legal matter.

Jennifer Carroll Foy, a former public defender in Arlington, says she’s often come to court and made such arguments to a judge about her interdicted clients. But her protests are commonly dismissed as a “collateral attack” on a civil case — even though that case has a direct impact on the charges her clients are facing.

“It may be a civil process, but there are criminal ramifications,” Foy said. “If there’s a possibility you’ll go to jail, I absolutely believe an attorney should be there.”

Stamos says her hands are tied by the statute in this case, arguing that public defenders “have no role” under the law in these interdiction cases.

“Their frustration shouldn’t be with my office, it should be with the system,” Stamos said.

Changing the law

Foy is in a unique position to address such displeasure with the law; she doubles as a state delegate representing parts of Prince William and Stafford counties, and has introduced legislation to repeal the “habitual drunkard” statute this year for a second time in a row.

Her bill died quickly in a subcommittee last year, but she’s more optimistic this time around, now that she’s worked to raise awareness about the issue.

“The most difficult part is educating people about it, because they don’t even know this law exists,” said Foy, a Democrat representing the House of Delegates’ 2nd District. “I hope it picks up a lot more traction this time.”

Though Democrats have a bit more clout in Richmond after a wave election in 2017, the party is still in the minority in both chambers of the General Assembly. That means Foy will face an uphill battle in getting anything passed, at least for now.

Poon is hopeful that the courts could provide some relief instead. A three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the case last August, but Poon’s organization is appealing the ruling to the full court, which could have the final say on the law’s constitutionality.

However, she says it’s “a mystery” when, or if, the court will agree to take the case.

In the meantime, interdictions in Arlington continue. County police referred two more people to Stamos’ prosecutors to be designated as “drunkards” just last fall.

“We have to do better when it comes to how we help the most vulnerable class of citizen in this state,” Foy said. “We’re not doing a very good job right now.”

File photo

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Arlington Pet of the Week: Milly

Becky's Pet Care

This week’s Arlington Pet of the Week is Milly, a cat who loves a good treat and a good snuggle.

Here’s what her owner, Gina, had to say:

Milly came from a local animal shelter last year where she was promptly diagnosed with terminal mammary cancer at age 6. Her parents were looking for a hospice cat and knew they needed to meet her. It was love at first sight, but, to be fair, Milly absolutely loves everyone she meets right away. No loyalty with this girl, she’ll snuggle the vet as she’s getting shots and complete strangers alike.

Maybe her affectionate nature earned her a lot of human treats as a stray because Milly loves a decadent snack; pizza crust, Chinese food (fried rice!), avocado, and all baked goods. She keeps her trim figure by full speed sprinting around her apartment and playing like a kitten – including knocking over her toy bucket on a weekly basis to display her favorites throughout the apartment. After a long day she loves to curl up on the couch or cozy up under the covers. Though her time is limited, Milly is spending it doted on and adored in Arlington!

Want your pet to be considered for the Arlington Pet of the Week? Email [email protected] with a 2-3 paragraph bio and at least 3-4 horizontally-oriented photos of your pet. Please don’t send vertical photos, they don’t fit in our photo galleries!

Each week’s winner receives a sample of dog or cat treats from our sponsor, Becky’s Pet Care, along with $100 in Becky’s Bucks. Becky’s Pet Care is the winner of six consecutive Angie’s List Super Service Awards, the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters’ 2013 Business of the Year and a proud supporter of the Arlington County Pawsitively Prepared Campaign.

Becky’s Pet Care provides professional dog walking and pet sitting in Arlington and all of Northern Virginia, as well as PetPrep training courses for Pet Care, CPR and emergency preparedness.

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Small Biz Focus: Looking Beyond Amazon… The New Way Forward

This column is sponsored by BizLaunch, a division of Arlington Economic Development.

By Victor Hoskins, Director at AED. 

It has been two months since Amazon announced its plan to bring its major new headquarters to Arlington.

In that time we have been busily planning and answering Arlingtonians’ many questions about the project. However, here at Arlington Economic Development, we are already looking ahead.

What’s next for Arlington’s economic landscape?

The Amazon effect, as it is being called, has been a game-changer for Arlington’s business community. Not only does Amazon’s decision really cement Arlington as a technology leader on the East Coast, the revenue generated from this company in the coming years will go a long way toward restoring stability to Arlington’s office environment, which has suffered from years of high vacancies.

Amazon will gradually reduce the eight million square feet that currently stands vacant in Arlington. Each one percent of vacant office space that we fill yields $3.4 million annually in new local tax revenues– revenues that help to provide resources and amenities valued by our community.

In a time when we all have faced difficult decisions regarding the County budget, this needed revenue comes at the perfect time.

But by no means is this a time to sit on our laurels. It just changes the conversation a little. In addition to putting a dent in Arlington’s office vacancy rate, what Amazon has truly done is put us on the map as a desired location to do business. That is where the real work begins.

The AED team is always working to find the next innovative company that is considering making Arlington its home. We are focusing on diversifying our economic base. We have come a long way in the last four years, but there is still work to be done to ensure Arlington’s place as a leader in the innovation economy.

The Amazon deal did something else that will also help to propel us into the future. That deal set truly unprecedented levels of partnership between jurisdictions and the Commonwealth of Virginia to ensure success, and that partnership around the region is something we only see growing. It is truly a regional economy now, and we need to think that way moving forward.

I look forward to working closely with my colleagues at the Virginia Economic Development Partnership as well as the counties throughout Northern Virginia. In addition, D.C. and Maryland Counties across the river are colleagues I have come to value not just as coworkers, but also as friends.

We have all discovered that by working together, the entire region benefits, and I believe that is the true Way Forward formula that will bring economic success to Arlington.

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As Amazon Looms, Lopez Pushes for More State Money to Fund Affordable Housing Development

(Updated at 3 p.m.) With Amazon gearing up to move into his neck of the woods, Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-49th District) is angling to substantially beef up state spending on affordable housing development.

Lopez, who represents a variety of South Arlington neighborhoods surrounding the tech company’s planned headquarters in Crystal City and Pentagon City, is eyeing a two-pronged approach to the issue in this year’s General Assembly session.

Both of his legislative efforts involve the Virginia Housing Trust Fund, a pot of money Lopez helped create back in 2016 to offer low-interest loans for developers hoping to build reasonably priced housing. Though state lawmakers have only allocated a few million dollars to the fund for the last few years, Lopez hopes to simultaneously ramp up appropriations for the program and find a more stable source of funding for it going forward.

Leaders in Arlington and Alexandria have both committed to send more resources to local programs targeting housing affordability in the wake of Amazon’s big announcement, but those efforts will only be designed to target the communities surrounding the tech giant’s new office space. And with most prognosticators predicting that the 25,000 Amazon employees set to descend on the area will choose to live all over the Northern Virginia region, Lopez sees a clear need for a state-level solution.

“This is a statewide problem,” Lopez told ARLnow. “And I believe affordable housing is a quality of life issue in Virginia, and it’s something we should be funding in the same breath as transit, transportation, environmental protection and education.”

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has already proposed sending $19 million to the housing fund over the next two years as part of his latest budget proposal. That change would make $20 million available for the current fiscal year, and another $10 million available the year after that.

But Lopez is envisioning an even larger amount heading to the fund, and he’s planning on proposing a one-time, $50-million influx to make a difference right away.

The amount might seem small compared to the state’s mammoth budget, but Lopez expects it could make a big difference — he points out that the fund has already helped kick start two projects along Columbia Pike in just the last few years alone.

Michelle Winters, the executive director of the Arlington-based Alliance for Housing Solutions, notes that the trust is “currently a small source of funding that is spread fairly thin across the state.” That means even Northam’s proposal, to say nothing of Lopez’s more ambitious ask, would be a “quantum leap” forward for the state, according to Michelle Krocker, the executive director of the Northern Virginia Affordable Housing Alliance.

Federal housing dollars are really diminishing, so it’s increasingly up to state and local governments to fund this stuff,” Krocker said. “Arlington has been a leader on this…but the state of Virginia is being fairly negligent, to put it mildly, in providing resources through the trust fund.”

Accordingly, Winters expects even a modest increase would prove to be meaningful, in Arlington and elsewhere.

“Even though it is small, any source of funding to help fill the gap in an affordable housing project’s budget is very valuable and can help make some more projects feasible,” Winters wrote in an email.

Yet Lopez also sees a clear need to make affordable housing funding a bit more predictable going forward.

Currently, Lopez laments that he has to go “hat in hand” to appropriators on General Assembly committees, urging them each year to set aside money for the trust fund. He’d much rather see lawmakers set up a dedicated funding stream to ensure regular, stable contributions to the loan program each year.

Accordingly, Lopez is backing a bill to establish such a funding mechanism — in essence, the legislation would pull away an annual percentage of surplus revenue from state “recordation” taxes, or levies on home transactions.

He’s proposed such legislation in the past, and acknowledge that it could face an uphill battle this time around — lawmakers with power over the state’s purse strings may be loathe to give up any budgetary discretion, after all.

Even the one-time cash infusion could prove difficult for Lopez to achieve, considering that Republicans have already declared Northam’s budget proposals “dead on arrival,” as a fight over tax revenues brews in the General Assembly.

“We’re all very concerned that with Republicans being so opposed to the governor’s amendments… that we’ll really have to wait and see whether the governor’s housing trust fund plans survives these deliberations,” Krocker said.

It doesn’t help matters either that some key lawmakers (and even some Northam administration officials) shied away from including more affordable housing money in the state’s proposal to Amazon, arguing localities and developers are better suited to fund this kind of development.

But Lopez is “hopeful” that the grave concerns raised about the housing market in the wake of Amazon’s announcement could help change minds on the issue, and he’ll certainly have allies among Arlington’s legislative delegation.

“Housing will be an issue here for at least a decade or more,” said Del. Patrick Hope (D-47th District). “Amazon coming in won’t change all that dramatically, but it does increase the urgency for affordable housing and putting funding behind this.”

File photo

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Saint Ann Catholic School Open House

Saint Ann Catholic School is holding an Open House on Sunday January 27th, 10:00am – 1:00pm and Tuesday January 29, 9:30am – 11:30am. This is your invitation to come and tour our school! Discover our wonderful Preschool program and have…

Toy Store, Massage Therapist Set to Return to Ballston Quarter

A pair of stores that once called the old Ballston Common mall home will soon re-open in the development’s new reincarnation, Ballston Quarter.

Curious Kids Toys and Refresh Therapeutic Massage have both posted signs announcing plans to return to storefronts on the development’s ground floor.

Both stores were forced to close when Ballston Common, located at 4238 Wilson Blvd, shut down in 2016. Developer Forest City has since been hard at work refreshing the mall, luring a host of new restaurants and businesses to the development.

But some shops from the old mall are gradually returning to the location — Chick-fil-A just opened in a brand new space a few weeks back, after the restaurant was long one of the most popular dining options in Ballston Common.

Curious Kids offers a selection of “board games, dolls, trucks, electronic games and more,” according to Ballston Quarter’s website. The store also operates a location in the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City mall.

Refresh will “help you de-stress, unwind, or work out a tight spot,” the development’s website says. The new location appears to be the only one in Arlington.

A variety of shops in Ballston Quarter have begun opening to customers over the last few months, though much of the development remains a work in progress. A newly revamped food court still seems set to open sometime next month, according to signs posted around the mall.

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Morning Notes

Housing and the County Budget — A new Greater Greater Washington article explores ways to add new housing at a time when Arlington County is facing a serious budget gap. [GGW]

Trails Treacherous for Cyclists — Despite efforts to plow local trails, many stretches in Arlington were still icy or snow-covered yesterday. [Twitter]

Police Warn About Phone Scam — “The Arlington County Police Department is warning the public about a fundraising phone scam targeting County residents. Residents have contacted the police department after receiving unsolicited phone calls from individual(s) claiming to be with the Arlington County Police Department and requesting donations to benefit the disabled and underprivileged children.” [Arlington County]

Fraser Among Those Called By Scammers — Arlington resident and local media personality Sarah Fraser was among those to be called by the scammers posing as ACPD. [Twitter]

A Modest Proposal for Stop Signs — “Close observation of local driving practices confirms the view that stop signs have become irrelevant, since no one obeys them. The closest drivers come is to slow and then slide through the intersection. It would be a cost-saving measure if Arlington County were to remove all its stop signs and replace them with ‘Yield’ signs.” [InsideNova]

Va. 8th District Has Most Federal Workers — “The House member with the most federal workers in his or her district is Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, whose Virginia district includes 86,900 federal workers. (Among districts with no military bases, Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly’s neighboring Virginia district has the highest number of federal workers.)” [Pew Research h/t Patricia Sullivan]

Stuck School Bus in Maywood — “#ArlingtonVA school bus stuck this am on N Fillmore St & 23rd St. N 3 days *AFTER* the snow! This hill on Fillmore is NEVER timely plowed or cleared. Do not put children at risk! Can @ArlingtonVA please clear this street.” [Twitter]

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Just Reduced Properties in Arlington

Each week, “Just Reduced” spotlights properties in Arlington County whose price have been cut over the previous week. The market summary is crafted by licensed broker Aaron Seekford of Arlington Realty, Inc. GET MORE out of your real estate investment with Aaron and his team by visiting www.arlingtonrealtyinc.com or calling 703-836-6116 today!

Please note: While Aaron Seekford provides this information for the community, he may not be the listing agent of these homes.

Each year, we see an understandable downtick in the number of listings and “Just Reduced” activity surrounding Christmas and New Year’s.

Well, we’re now through the holiday lull, folks. Within the last week, we’ve seen a 10 percent uptick in active listings.

So, let’s find you the home of your dreams, why don’t we?

It’s an interesting time of year for a home search. There can be weather to combat (as we’ve certainly experienced lately!), we’re in the middle of the school year and there generally aren’t as many options as the spring or summertime. But there is still some stellar inventory available, some of which may be right up your alley… and at a stellar price.

When you’re ready to explore your options and get the most bang for your buck, our team is ready to help you GET MORE out of your transaction.

As of January 14, there are 100 detached homes, 15 townhouses and 101 condos for sale throughout Arlington County. In total, 9 homes experienced a price reduction in the past week:

Please note that this is solely a selection of Just Reduced properties available in Arlington County. For a complete list of properties within your target budget and specifications, contact Aaron Seekford.

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Furloughed Feds: Freelance for ARLnow

Are you a communications staffer with the federal government, or any other federal employee who’s furloughed and has news-writing experience?

If so, ARLnow wants you.

Thanks to our Patreon community, ARLnow is now commissioning longer, community-focused articles from local freelance writers. (And with additional reader support, we could be doing more.) With the shutdown still going on, we’d like to help out by commissioning articles from federal employees who can use the supplemental income.

So if you are furloughed and have a local Arlington story to pitch, email us at [email protected] and let us know what you’d like to write about — anything from human interest feature stories to explorations of local issues or policies. Also please include links to an article or two you’ve written in the past.

We can publish the article under a pseudonym, if need be, given any such restrictions at your federal agency.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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Safety Concerns Prompt Sidewalk Closure on Four Mile Run Bridge to Alexandria

Safety concerns have prompted the county to close a sidewalk along a bridge over Four Mile Run connecting Arlington and Alexandria.

The western sidewalk of the bridge connecting S. Arlington Ridge Road with Mount Vernon Avenue is now closed indefinitely, the county announced last week.

Officials say a recent inspection revealed “beam deterioration” on one of the supports under the bridge’s western sidewalk. The structure was built back in 1956.

The county now plans to use “signage and barricades” to direct people to the other side of the bridge. A Metrobus stop serving the 10A, 10E, 23A and 23B routes and the entry to the Four Mile Run Park and the Four Mile Run Trail sit just before the north end of the bridge on the east side at S. Glebe Road.

Another Metrobus stop sits at the northwest corner of Arlington Ridge and Glebe Road, serving the 10A and 10E routes.

County engineers plan to “monitor conditions and look at eventual replacement options,” but have no timetable for the sidewalk to reopen.

The county closed sidewalks along another nearby bridge at W. Glebe Road over Four Mile Run due to similar concerns back in November.

Photo via Google Maps

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