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Lawsuit seeks to end jail time for the homeless

Lawsuit seeks to end jail time for the homeless

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A legal team hopes to end what it sees as Virginia’s abusive incarceration of homeless alcoholics for repeated alcohol offenses.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Roanoke federal court, the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center of Virginia sought to remove simple alcohol possession as a trigger for jail time or a fine for homeless people with alcoholism who have been declared a “habitual drunkard.”

The drunkard status, known as interdiction, is put in place by a Circuit Court judge at the request of a commonwealth’s attorney. Donald Caldwell, Roanoke’s commonwealth’s attorney, said he seeks the status for anyone convicted of being drunk in public 10 times within one year. The law sets no specific guideline for prosecutors and judges to follow, the lawsuit said.

Roanoke, which resumed regular use of interdiction in the late 1990s, interdicted 140 people between 2007 and 2015, the second most of any community in the state, according to state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control records reviewed by the legal center. More than 1,200 people underwent interdiction statewide during that period, the center said.

Once interdicted, a person is subject to arrest and misdemeanor prosecution for alcohol possession or consumption regardless of whether he or she is intoxicated, disruptive or disorderly, according to the suit.

Advocates say the restrictions unfairly affect homeless alcoholics because alcoholics are virtually unable to not drink and homeless people often “have no choice but to remain in public places for extended periods of time,” court papers said.

Sanctioning homeless alcoholics for drinking or having alcohol “effectively criminalizes alcohol use disorder — a disease — for homeless individuals,” the suit said.

Amy Walters, an attorney at the center, said she hopes to persuade the federal court to declare current practice a violation of civil rights, specifically the right to not undergo cruel and unusual punishment by the government. The goal is that “folks aren’t being imprisoned for what is essentially a public health issue,” she said.

She said revisions of the law by the General Assembly are needed. Also of concern, the person accused is notified of the civil hearing where the interdiction decision is made but isn’t guaranteed a lawyer, and the proceeding will go forward if the person isn’t there, which the suit deemed a violation of due process rights.

The lawsuit names Caldwell and Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring but is directed at all commonwealth’s attorneys in the state. Lawyers filed it on behalf of six people, but it is intended to benefit all homeless alcoholics under interdiction or under threat of interdiction.

Caldwell said Thursday that he hadn’t seen the lawsuit yet.

The center and the New York firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP jointly developed and filed the case.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers business, banking, transportation and federal court. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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