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.