Closely Divided Appeals Court Strikes Down Virginia’s Habitual Drunkard Law

Closely Divided Appeals Court Strikes Down Virginia’s Habitual Drunkard Law

A Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, held that a Virginia habitual drunkard law was unconstitutionally vague. In its 8-7 opinion, the court noted the law raised concerns about violations of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Virginia’s Law

The state law makes it a crime for individuals labeled as “habitual drunkards” to consume, possess, or purchase alcohol. The law, however, fails to define what “habitual” or “drunkard” means and instead leaves the determination to the court considering whether to issue an order preventing the sale of alcoholic beverages to such an individual. Those who are convicted under the habitual drunkard law face penalties including up to one year of jail time. The Legal Aid Justice Center reports that in addition to Virginia, Utah is the only state in the union with a similar habitual drunkard law. LAJC, along with a private law firm, filed a class action suit on behalf of four plaintiffs who have been labeled as habitual drunkards and faced multiple criminal prosecutions.

Appeals Court Decision

According to the 4th Circuit majority opinion, the Virginia law provides no guidance on defining the terms ‘habitual’ or ‘drunkard.’ Indeed, it does not state how often and how long the drinking must happen and it fails to identify how much alcohol must be consumed. As a result, the Appeals Court found the law invited arbitrary enforcement and violates the due process clause because it is unconstitutionally vague. Even if the terms were defined, the Appeals Court continued, it would raise concerns about cruel and unusual punishment and pointed to a 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case that struck down a law making addiction to narcotics a crime. Six years later, however, the SCOTUs upheld a law that criminalized public intoxication.

Challenges to Laws

There are several ways a statute or law can be challenged as unconstitutional. In a facial challenge to a statute, the plaintiff claims the legislation is unconstitutional because it violates the law as written – or on its face. In an as-applied challenge, the plaintiff alleges a particular application of the statute violates the constitution. In other words, while the statue – as written – is not unconstitutional on its face when it is applied it violates the constitution. When a court declares a law facially invalid or unconstitutional, it will strike down the law in its entirety. When a court finds a statute unconstitutional as applied, it will narrow the situations in which the law may be applied and still be constitutional and will not strike down the law.

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