Kicked While Down: Virginia’s Criminalization of Addiction

March 26, 2020 by Benjamin Kamelhar

by Ryan Kelley

It is well-established that homelessness and addiction are closely related to one another. In fact, up to two-thirds of the homeless population cites substance abuse as a major factor in their becoming homeless.[1] Moreover, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, thirty-eight percent of the homeless population currently suffers from alcohol dependency,[2] and up to half has suffered from alcohol abuse now or in the past.[3]


Effective solutions to this problem are imperative, and yet they have proven highly elusive. In some states, frustrated lawmakers have turned to criminalization as their preferred method of preventing addiction amongst the homeless. This approach has made it difficult for many people experiencing homelessness to maintain employment and secure long-term housing, and has led to their regular harassment and embarrassment.[4] Nonetheless, it is this approach that has been endorsed by Virginia courts and lawmakers for decades. That is, until recently.


Virginia’s “habitual drunkard” law was first enacted in 1993.[5] Under the statute, courts have the power to “enter an order of interdiction prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages” to anyone who “has shown himself to be an habitual drunkard.”[6] The law leaves the term “habitual drunkard” undefined, and lacks any standard that might help gauge the sort of behavior that would qualify someone as such.[7] Furthermore, while the statute requires that anyone subject to an interdiction order be given a hearing before being placed in this category, often these hearings are conducted outside the presence of the defendant.[8]


To be labeled a “habitual drunkard” under the law is a bad enough stigma in itself. But arguably even worse than this label are the criminal penalties associated with it, which include “confinement in jail for not more than twelve months and a fine of not more than $2,500, either or both,” for any “habitual drunkards” who consume, purchase, or possess alcohol, or who even attempt to do so.[9] It is a draconian penalty, even more so when one considers its widespread imposition on one of the most vulnerable groups of people in the country;[10] some jurisdictions, including Richmond and Arlington, simply refused to enforce the law.[11]


Finally, after thousands of arrests, the Virginia homeless population had had enough. In March 2016, four homeless individuals, Bryan Manning, Ryan Williams, Richard Deckerhoff, and Richard Eugene Walls, each of whom suffered from an alcohol use disorder, sued the Commonwealth of Virginia to halt enforcement of its “habitual drunkard” statute.[12] All four of these men had received interdictions despite never having been convicted of any alcohol-related offenses.[13] They alleged that Virginia’s scheme, while not explicitly targeting the homeless, was nonetheless “a tool to rid the streets of particularly vulnerable, unwanted alcoholics like themselves.”[14] Furthermore, they alleged that the Virginia law violated their constitutional rights in four ways: (1) it was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, (2) it deprived them of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, (3) it denied them equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, and (4) it was unconstitutionally vague under the Fourteenth Amendment.[15]


The district court dismissed the suit for failure to state a claim.[16] On appeal, however, the Fourth Circuit, reversing both the lower court and its own precedent, held both that the Virginia statutory scheme was unconstitutionally vague under the Fourteenth Amendment, and that, even if the meaningless term “habitual drunkard” could be limited to those individuals suffering from alcoholism, the plaintiffs had adequately stated an Eighth Amendment claim, and their suit should not have been dismissed.[17] It was a major victory for people experiencing homelessness in Virginia; the door was now open for a more empathetic and evidence-based approach to dealing with the problem of substance abuse in this population.


Less than a year has passed since the death of the habitual drunkard law in Virginia, and the response to the Fourth Circuit’s decision has yet to materialize (though Mark Herring, Attorney General of Virginia, has made clear that the old law is not to be enforced[18]). Some homeless advocates have demanded the criminalization approach be replaced with a housing approach, which studies have shown reduces both homelessness and substance abuse.[19] The approach has already been successfully implemented in other cities and states across the country; Seattle, for instance, combats substance abuse among the homeless through a housing-first model, which provides housing and support systems for chronic abusers rather than putting them in jail.[20] But whatever path Virginia decides to take on this issue, for now its homeless population and those in the state suffering from addiction can rest a bit easier knowing that their illness will no longer be criminalized to the extreme extent it was before.[21]



[1] Eugenia Didenko & Nicole Pancratz, Substance Abuse: Pathway to Homelessness? Or a Way of Adapting to Street Life?, 4 Visions J. 9, 9 (2007).

[2] Nat’l Coal. for the Homeless, Substance Abuse and Homelessness 1 (2009),

[3] Editorial Staff, Addiction Among the Homeless Population, Sunrise House (July 11, 2019),

[4] See Manning v. Caldwell for City of Roanoke, 930 F.3d 264, 269-70 (4th Cir. 2019).

[5] 1993 Va. Legis. Serv. 48 (West).

[6] Va. Code Ann. § 4.1-333(A) (2019).

[7] Manning, 930 F.3d at 288.

[8] Id. at 268-69.

[9] § 18.2-11(a).

[10] See Ned Oliver, Virginia’s ‘Habitual Drunkard’ Law is Dead, Va. Mercury (Aug. 2, 2019), (explaining that at the time Manning was decided, Virginia was one of only two states that allowed local judges to ban people deemed “habitual drunkards” from possessing alcohol, the other being Utah).

[11] Id.

[12] Manning, 930 F.3d at 269.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id. at 268.

[17] Id. at 285.

[18] Frank Green, Virginia Attorney General Says Habitual Drunkard Law Should Not Be Enforced, Rich. Times-Dispatch (Sept. 20, 2019),

[19] John Dixon & Eric Tars, Opinion, Police Chiefs and Advocates for the Homeless Agree: Housing, Not Handcuffs, Is the Right Way to Deal with Poverty, Wash. Post (Sept. 12, 2019),

[20] Id.

[21] See Manning, 930 F.3d at 283 (“Virginia’s two-pronged statutory scheme…effectively criminalizes an illness.”).