Human Rights

Virginia Has Been Putting 'Habitual Drunkards' on a Shady Blacklist and Targeting Them

A questionably legal program unfairly targets poor residents, sweeping them off the street and into jail.

Photo Credit: Marek/Flickr Creative Commons

Virginia cops and prosecutors in four counties are using a bizarre legal code to secretly blacklist and outright ban residents deemed “habitual drunkards” from purchasing alcohol, a Daily Beast report on a class-action lawsuit filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center claims. The penalties can range from huge fines to jail time.

By prohibiting “habitual drunkards” from buying, consuming, or being near alcohol, the blacklist—which appears to target homeless people—sweeps poor residents, many of them with alcohol problems, off the streets and into jails where no one has to look at them. Cops are reportedly making arrests over the mere scent of booze, without even using a breathalyzer to detect consumption. These “drunkards,” the Daily Beast says, “can’t even go into 7-Eleven without suspicion.”

The law reportedly targets the most vulnerable, impoverished members of the community, putting them behind bars and also hitting them with hefty fines. The punishment for “habitual drunkards”—the majority of whom are homeless— is more severe than for unlisted folks committing alcohol-related crimes:

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When most Virginians are caught with an open container, they’re given a citation and a $250 fine. But when [a] person on the interdicted list is caught with a brown bag of hooch, the fine leaps up to $2,500 and [they] can be jailed for up to one year for committing a Class 1 misdemeanor.

More than 600 people have been jailed under the statute in Virginia Beach since 2007 and at least 140 have been in Roanoke so far.

If the law sounds antiquated, that’s because it’s from 1867.

Virginia’s Legal Aid Center also says it’s unconstitutional, since the homeless people primarily impacted by it have no legal representation to protect them from a practice that does not even have clear procedural guidelines.

 

 

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Kristen Gwynne is an editor at The Influence. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, VICE and RollingStone.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristengwynne.