Virginia Is Jailing People For Smelling Like Alcohol, Says Lawsuit

By McCarton Ackerman 03/23/16

A new lawsuit claims that Virginia has a secret "habitual drunkard blacklist" which is targeting those with previous alcohol-related offenses. 

Virginia Is Jailing People For Smelling Like Alcohol, Says Lawsuit
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A new class action lawsuit in Virginia claims that people are being placed on a secret list and then jailed simply for possessing alcohol.

The lawsuit, brought by the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, Va., claims that five cities throughout the state are using a “habitual drunkard” law in a bid to remove homeless people from the streets. The archaic law, which dates back to 1873, has reportedly sparked a secret blacklist known as the Interdiction List. The list forbids anyone on it from consuming, purchasing or possessing alcohol. Simply being caught with an open container can result in a $2,500 fine and a year in jail, compared with a citation and a $250 fine for anyone not on the list.

In addition to treating people differently for committing the same offense, the lawsuit alleges that all it takes for a person to be placed on the list is for a prosecutor to appear before a judge and claim that someone is a habitual drunkard. Even worse is that “Virginia law provides no clear standards and procedures” for how someone can remove their name from the list. There have been 4,743 convictions from the list over the last 10 years.

"This is unconstitutional," said Mary Frances Charlton of the Legal Aid Justice Center, to The Daily Beast. "It’s a civil court and yet a prosecutor can ask the local trial court to slap this label on an individual in the community. They don’t get a lawyer, they aren’t given the right to confront witnesses like they would in criminal court, and often they’re not even present." According to the lawsuit, "once interdicted, a person often carries the label of ‘habitual drunkard’ for life."

Some on the list even claim they’ve been jailed when they haven’t done anything wrong. Bryan Manning, a Roanoke resident with 30 previous alcohol-related offenses, claims he was arrested at a Walmart (“where alcohol was sold”) after a cop declared he smelled alcohol on his breath, but he was never granted an attorney. An anonymous 27-year-old Virginia Beach native, who was placed on the list after a DUI, claimed that he was jailed for simply watching a football game at a bar.

"They’ll say, ‘I smell alcohol on your breath.’ And I say ‘Give me a Breathalyzer’ and they won’t, and tell me ‘I’m taking you to jail anyway because I smell alcohol,” Richard Starnes, a formerly homeless 50-year-old residing in Roanoke, told The Daily Beast.

A small percentage of people on the list were reportedly added to it voluntarily of their probation for DUI-related offenses. With the homeless recording low rates of lasting sobriety and this trend of jailing them for minor alcohol offenses, this vicious cycle appears to show no signs of slowing down.

“They know my name and stuff and they tell me, ‘You shouldn’t be getting beer, being homeless.’ It’s a big nightmare,” said Manning. “I’m so afraid to walk down the street and I really just want to be left alone.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.