Police Antisocial Behavior, Not Addictions

It’s one thing to be intoxicated — another to pass out on a public park bench.

In an 8-7 vote, a federal appeals court has struck down a Virginia law punishing “habitual” drunks. The law targeted homeless people struggling with alcoholism, thus “criminalizing an illness,” reports the Washington Post. Further, the court found the law to be unconstitutionally vague.

There are reasonable arguments on both sides of this issue. Alcohol addiction is an illness, and money might well be better spent providing treatment to homeless drunks rather than incarcerating them. On the other hand, the law provided local police a tool for maintaining public order. Eliminating the law invites drunks and derelicts to occupy public spaces where they might infringe upon the rights of others.

To my mind, it is crucial to distinguish between the illness and the behavior — and this applies to intoxication with marijuana and other drugs as well as alcohol. While addiction should not be a crime, police should address public intoxication when a person’s behavior becomes threatening or disruptive.

In perusing the Virginia State Police “Crime in Virginia 2018” report, I note the following numbers (combining figures for adults and juvenile):

Drunkenness — 20,034
Curfew/loitering/vagrancy — 673
Disorderly conduct — 2,893
Driving under the influence — 21.359

Arrests for drunkenness are far more common than for vagrancy or disorderly conduct. In other words, police in Virginia are punishing the illness. Except for drunk driving, they rarely punish the behavior.

Drunkenness tells us nothing about a person’s behavior. Thousands of Virginians step out of restaurants and nightclubs every night in a state of inebriation without bothering anyone. They catch rides home with designated drivers, hire Uber or Lyft, or walk home. Many people who cannot control their drinking do manage to control their behavior and pose no problem to others. Sadly, some alcoholics are homeless, have nowhere to sleep it off, and can create a problem.

Virginians should treat alcoholism as a public health issue, and we should focus resources on treating alcoholics and other substance abusers rather than jailing them. But the fact that a person suffers from alcohol addiction and warrants compassion does not give him the right to pass out on a park bench, the sidewalk, or in the doorway of a commercial establishment, where he inconveniences others. It does not give him the right to stagger around shouting nonsense and frightening people. Virginians have a right to enjoy safe public spaces.

Fortunately, Virginia does have laws prohibiting loitering and vagrancy, and it does have laws prohibiting disorderly conduct. It strikes me that the conflicting arguments proffered by the federal appeals judges can be reconciled by a change in police tactics. Police should not arrest people for drunkenness (or possession of small amounts of marijuana); they should arrest people when their substance abuse manifests itself in the form of vagrancy, disorderly behavior, and driving while intoxicated. Thus, society can cease punishing people for their addictions while still holding them accountable for their behavior.

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5 responses to “Police Antisocial Behavior, Not Addictions

  1. I agree with the general argument that driumks or alcoholics should be treated, rather than jailed. I have a feeling that the State Police numbers are not as bad as they seem. Police have some discretion over what they can charge folks with. I have a feeling that a large number of those charged with drunkenness could also have been charged with trespassing or disorderly conduct, for example.
    The “habitual drunkard” statute does penalize a condition and is vague and should have been knocked down. But the court’s decision does not prevent the police from protecting society from the behaviors or actions of people who are hopelessly drunk in public.

    • Dick – I agree that trespassing or disorderly conduct would be a much better charge assuming the bad behavior occurred. I guess that if a drunk is just sleeping it off on public property and not interfering with the public’s ingress and egress, I’m not sure charges should be brought.

  2. “The “habitual drunkard” statute does penalize a condition and is vague and should have been knocked down.”
    In my experience, the “Otis Law,” was a particularity ineffective measure owing to the limitations for buying alcohol being limited to one county and only retained popularity as a measure in only a few jurisdictions. I have “heard” of
    it being popular also with desperate defense attorneys who preferred their client to be labelled as habitual drunkard than necessarily serve jail time.

  3. I don’t see why it’s necessary to invoke changing views on alcohol addiction.
    The libertarian principle is enough here: We don’t generally pass laws forbidding people to harm themselves; we ask the State to intervene when there’s harm to others. This principle becomes attenuated when we ask the State to intervene when there’s a likelihood of future harm or offense to others but nothing harmful or offensive has happened yet. Seems to me, arresting an habitual drunkard simply for being drunk again is in that category.

    Judge Wilkinson’s dissent laments the policeman’s loss of yet another discretionary tool for maintaining public order; but I suspect the origin of this law lies more in the offense of being drunk itself to sober, sheltered 19th century women and children, as perceived by the upstanding people that brought us the Anti-Saloon League and Prohibition. Society has moved on since that day. As you point out, Jim, there are other tools still available that address disorderly actions, not drunkenness per se. If eliminating “habitual drunkard” deprives desperate defense attorneys of a tactic to avoid jail time, as WHB points out, then maybe what’s needed is a new category of misdemeanor disorderly conduct without jail time that invites such guilty pleas.

  4. I do not support the current law the judge threw out but I will point out that there are two things in play here – an illness and a behavior.

    For instance, lots of folks have various kinds of illnesses but they do not “express” them in a public way that offends. But also take someone who “squats” in a park because they are homeless or stands on a street corner harassing people to “help” them with “charity”.

    I’m not sure what the answer is but apparently Boise has found it with their fabulous greenway which is enormously popular judging from the number of walkers, joggers, bikers, etc and in an hour walk, I saw not a single homeless person or was accosted by a panhandler.

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