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Virginia won’t appeal ruling tossing ‘habitual drunkard’ law

August 2, 2019

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s attorney general on Friday said he will not appeal a ruling that struck down a state law allowing police to arrest and jail people designated as “habitual drunkards.”

Mark Herring said called the law “strange and regressive” and said Virginia’s General Assembly should have taken it off the books a long time ago.

“Virginia can find better ways to address alcohol use disorders,” Herring said in a statement.

In a sharply divided 8-7 ruling last month, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law is unconstitutionally vague. The court reversed earlier rulings that dismissed a lawsuit challenging the law.

The Legal Aid Justice Center argued in its lawsuit that the law targets homeless alcoholics and violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

“We applaud Mark Herring’s decision to embrace the court’s decision on this statute and we look forward to working with him on solutions on homelessness and alcohol addiction issues,” said Elaine Poon, managing attorney of the center’s Charlottesville office.

The law allowed prosecutors to ask a civil judge to declare someone a “habitual drunkard.” Police could then arrest that person for being publicly intoxicated, possessing alcohol or even smelling of alcohol. Violators could be held in jail for up to a year.

Lawyers who brought the lawsuit on behalf of people who had been prosecuted under the law argued that it criminalized addiction by targeting people who are compelled to drink because they are alcoholics and are forced to drink in public because they are homeless.

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