RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected a challenge to a Virginia law that allows police to arrest people designated as "habitual drunkards" if they are caught with alcohol, finding that the state has a "legitimate interest" in discouraging alcohol abuse.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court judge who dismissed the lawsuit last year. But one of the judges sharply criticized the law, saying it "criminalizes the otherwise legal behavior of individuals suffering from a serious illness."
The Legal Aid Justice Center argued in its lawsuit that the law criminalizes addiction, punishes homeless alcoholics who have nowhere else to drink but in public and violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
But the court said the law "does not single out homeless alcoholics for different treatment."
"We emphasize what we hope would be obvious: it would be unlawful for the state to simply round up "undesirable" persons based on their perceived status as addicts or drunkards. ... It is inimical to personal liberty to bring criminal charges on the basis of who someone is," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote for the panel.
"But Virginia has been ... careful to observe that line. It has prohibited individuals deemed at a higher risk of alcohol abuse from possessing or consuming alcohol. This includes not only habitual drunkards, but also people who have been convicted of drunk driving and those under twenty-one," he added.
Judge Diana Gribbon Motz said she voted with the other judges to uphold the law, citing binding court precedent, but did so "with reluctance and regret." Motz said the law "targets a group of vulnerable, sick people for special punishment based on otherwise legal behavior (drinking alcohol) that is an involuntary manifestation of their illness."
The law, which dates back to the 1930s, makes it a crime for people designated as habitual drunkards to possess, consume or purchase alcohol, or even attempt to do so. In addition to up to a year in jail, violators face fines of up to $2,500.
Elaine Poon, a managing attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the group is considering asking the 4th Circuit to hold a hearing before the full court to reconsider the panel's ruling.
"This is a pretty medieval statute that targets the most vulnerable in our society," Poon said.
"It not only targets them, but unlawfully punishes them for being who they are."