Habitual drinkers can be fined $2,500 and thrown in jail for a year if they so much as smell like alcohol. Even worse, they won’t necessarily know they’re on the state’s secretive drinking ‘black list.’
The state of Virginia maintains what is known as the Interdiction List — and because people can be added in absentia by a prosecutor in a civil, not criminal, proceeding, they aren’t given the chance to fight back. Once someone is added, the Daily Beast reported, “they’re forbidden to possess, purchase, or consume alcohol” — or be in the company of someone who does.
“This is unconstitutional,” said attorney Mary Frances Charlton of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville to the Daily Beast. “It’s a civil court and yet a prosecutor can ask the local trial court to slap this label on an individual in the community. They don’t get a lawyer, they aren’t given the right to confront witnesses like they would in criminal court, and often they’re not even present.”
A class-action lawsuit has been brought by the Legal Aid Center against Roanoke and four other cities for the alleged employment of the “habitual drunkard” law to wipe the streets of indigent or houseless individuals.
“Once this label is slapped on them through civil proceedings,” Charlton added, “any possession of alcohol is punished by up to a year in jail.”
Someone caught with an open container would typically be cited and fined $250. But for people on the alcohol blacklist, the fine is an astronomical $2,500 and up to a year in jail for the Class 1 misdemeanor offense.
In just ten years, the State of Virginia has jailed over 4,700 of its 7,020 countable homeless populace — including 600 in Virginia Beach, alone. And the law has such broad application, sitting near an open container or simply “having a detectable odor of alcohol on or near their person” can land hefty penalties. “That means merely napping on a bench by a trashcan full of empties or taking cough medicine could be a crime,” noted the Daily Beast.
According to the lawsuit, the procedural process for deeming someone a habitual drunkard is surprisingly simple — and alarmingly secretive. A prosecutor appears before a judge and declares a person should be added — and that’s all it takes.
Removing oneself from the Interdicted List is…well…no one knows.
According to the lawsuit, “Virginia law provides no clear standards and procedures for removing the ‘habitual drunkard’ label under the Interdiction Statute…Thus, once interdicted, a person often carries the label of ‘habitual drunkard’ for life.”
Of course, the label isn’t only applied to the indigent or houseless — anyone can end up interdicted. Plea deals for even routine alcohol-related offenses often include the stipulation of interdiction. And the list doesn’t work. It hasn’t solved the homeless issue or given hope or help to those with addiction to alcohol.
The Interdiction law has been renewed numerous times, even in recent years, despite being called ‘ineffective’ by experts — it originally dates back to 1873.
Whatever the intent of the law might have been, its anachronistic criminalization of minor alcohol issues has given police almost carte blanche for harassing otherwise law-abiding citizens. Further, it criminalizes those who might be addicted instead of offering treatment or other aid.