Virginia lawmakers vote to repeal "habitual drunkard" law

Published: Feb. 19, 2020 at 2:55 PM EST
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Virginia lawmakers have voted to repeal a law still on Virginia's books that allows police to arrest and jail people designated as "habitual drunkards."

would repeal the part of the Virginia Code allowing people to be designated "habitual drunkards" and then denied alcohol sales and the ability to get a concealed handgun permit.

It passed the House of Delegates on a 91-7 vote on Feb. 5 and then the Senate on a 36-3 vote on Feb. 19.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the law is unconstitutionally vague in a ruling issued last year, essentially striking down the law.

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

It had been challenged by the Legal Aid Justice Center as targeting homeless people and violating the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

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.

The bill to repeal the law next heads to Governor Ralph Northam's desk for a signature.