Fourth Circuit Overturns “Habitual Drunkard” Law: Manning v. Caldwell, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, Decided July 16, 2019
In Manning v. Caldwell, the Fourth Circuit overturned a Virginia law that criminalized “habitual drunkards,” imposing enhanced penalties up to 12 months in prison for possessing alcohol once a court has declared them to be a habitual drunkard.
The law was unconstitutionally vague because it does not define “habitual drunkard” sufficiently to put people on notice as to when they are violating the law, and the law violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because it essentially criminalizes the status of being an alcoholic.
What was the “habitual drunkard” law and why is it unconstitutional? Will this decision affect other laws like public intoxication, minor in possession of alcohol, or driving under the influence?
What is a “Habitual Drunkard” Law?
The habitual drunkard law made it a crime to buy, possess, or drink alcohol after a court declares you to be a “habitual drunkard:”
[The law] makes it a criminal offense for those whom the Commonwealth has labeled “habitual drunkards” to possess, consume, or purchase alcohol. The scheme authorizes Virginia to obtain, in absentia, a civil interdiction order against persons it deems “habitual drunkards,” and then permits Virginia to rely on the interdiction order to criminally prosecute conduct permitted for all others of legal drinking age.
Once declared an “habitual drunkard,” an interdicted person is subject to incarceration for the mere possession of or attempt to possess alcohol, or for being drunk in public. Virginia Code § 4.1-322 establishes a Class 1 misdemeanor for an interdicted person to “possess any alcoholic beverages,” or to be “drunk in public”
Although most public intoxication or alcohol possession charges carry no more than 30 days in jail, the habitual drunkard law authorizes punishment of up to 12 months for a violation after a court has “interdicted” a person.
The Habitual Drunkard Law Criminalizes Alcoholism
The practical effect of the law is that it targets alcoholics because they are alcoholics. Because a court has said you are a “habitual drunkard,” you are now subject to a 12-month prison sentence if you possess or drink alcohol…
The Habitual Drunkard Law is Used to Target Homeless People
Another practical effect of the law is that authorities were using it to target homeless people, putting them in jail to clear the streets and parks:
Plaintiffs allege that, although by its terms the challenged scheme is not limited to the homeless, in practice it functions as a tool to rid the streets of particularly vulnerable, unwanted alcoholics like themselves. In support of this claim, they allege that although there were 4,743 prosecutions for the crime of “possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages by interdicted persons” during the decade preceding 2015, only 1,220 distinct individuals were interdicted between 2007 and 2015…
Each of the named Plaintiffs asserts that he has been repeatedly criminally prosecuted after interdiction, often on dubious grounds. Some say they have been prosecuted as many as 25 to 30 times.
Once a person is labeled by a court as a “habitual drunkard,” it makes it even more difficult for them to find work and a place to live – making it more likely that they will remain homeless. Ironically, the opposite of what the statute was intended to accomplish:
They allege that the “habitual drunkard” label also has adversely affected their ability to maintain employment and secure long-term housing, and has subjected them to continual harassment and embarrassment.
Why is the Habitual Drunkard Law Unconstitutional?
The Fourth Circuit found that the habitual drunkard law is unconstitutional because 1) it is unconstitutionally vague, and 2) it violates the Eighth Amendment by criminalizing the status of being an alcoholic.
The Habitual Drunkard Law is Unconstitutionally Vague
If a person is going to be subject to criminal penalties for violating a law, they must be placed on notice as to exactly what conduct constitutes a violation of that law.
If a statute fails to provide any standard of conduct by which persons can determine whether they are violating the statute or does not provide “minimal guidelines to govern law enforcement,” the statute is unconstitutionally vague.
In this case, Virginia law does not define “habitual drunkard” – the state and the dissent argue that the term is self-explanatory, but it is not. The term is not defined in the law itself, it is not defined in appellate opinions, and it is not defined in any other Virginia statutes.
What does “habitual” mean? Doing something “by habit?” What does “habit” mean? The dictionary says it could mean a “custom,” a “nearly involuntary” practice, a “normal manner of procedure,” or something done with “frequent repetition.”
Is a habitual drunkard someone who drinks every day? Someone who drinks alcohol one day a week? Every weekend night? Every night? Every day and night?
What does “drunkard” mean? It is commonly understood to mean an alcoholic or someone who drinks excessively… If it means a person who drinks excessively, how much alcohol is excessive? If it means an alcoholic, how is an alcoholic defined?
…the term “habitual drunkard” as used in Virginia law is so vague as to offer no meaningful standard of conduct.
The failure to define “habitual drunkard” leads to arbitrary enforcement, subjective interpretation by individual officers, prosecutors, and judges, and, in this case, use of the statute to target homeless persons.
The Habitual Drunkard Law Violates the Eighth Amendment
The US Supreme Court held in Robinson v. California that a statute criminalizing narcotics addiction is unconstitutional. It is not a valid exercise of the state’s police power because narcotics addiction is an illness – to imprison a person because of an involuntary illness is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment:
“…a law which [would make] a criminal offense of such a disease would doubtless be universally thought to be an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.” Id. This was so, the Court held, because a state could not, consistent with the Constitution, punish a person for an illness. See id. at 667. In so holding, the Robinson Court expressly noted, as the state there recognized, that just as a “narcotic addict” is “in a state of mental and physical illness[,] [s]o is an alcoholic.”
Does this Decision Affect Other Alcohol-Related Crimes?
It is a narrow holding that won’t affect most alcohol-related offenses unless they criminalize the “status” of being an alcoholic or addict.
The Eighth Amendment does not prohibit laws that criminalize voluntary acts. For example, public intoxication, driving under the influence, or minor in possession of alcohol laws criminalize choices. You may be an alcoholic, but you can choose to drink at home. You can choose to not drive after drinking.
The habitual drunkard law, on the other hand, ultimately criminalizes the “status” of being an alcoholic and then targets homeless alcoholics who do not have a choice as to where they drink because they do not have a home.
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