- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

GLOUCESTER, Va. (AP) — A rarely used Virginia law is being invoked against a man who has a long history of public drunkenness.

If declared a “habitual drunkard,” Michael S. Roberts could be fined or jailed if he’s caught buying, possessing or drinking alcohol — a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail or a $2,500 fine. Anyone who supplied him booze could also be punished.

A Gloucester Circuit judge will consider the case May 5.

“Right now, anybody walking down the street who’s drunk off their butt can be arrested for ‘drunk in public,’ and there’s not much of a penalty, except for a fine,” said Brian Decker, the assistant commonwealth’s attorney who’s petitioning to have Mr. Roberts declared a habitual drunkard.

“What it does is try to alleviate some of the aggravation on the arresting officer who gets called out to the same place three times in a week for the same drunken gentleman,” Mr. Decker said.

Mr. Roberts, 41, of Hayes, Va., has been convicted of at least 10 alcohol-related misdemeanors in Gloucester, Mathews, Newport News and Middlesex over the past several years.

The original “habitual drunkard” statute has been on the books since 1950, but even among prosecutors, it is not widely known.

Linda Curtis, Hampton’s commonwealth’s attorney, said she didn’t know of the statute being used there during her 26 years as a prosecutor.

“This office typically doesn’t prosecute drunk charges. They’re a lower, lower-class misdemeanor that doesn’t involve the prosecutor’s office,” she said. “It wouldn’t be something we would initiate on our own because we simply wouldn’t be paying attention to people who would be found to be habitually drunk.”

Mr. Decker said the Gloucester commonwealth’s attorney usually acted to have someone declared a habitual drunkard after the person had been charged with 10 alcohol-related offenses over a few years. He said Gloucester invoked the law eight or nine times in the past 10 years.

Though the law makes it illegal to sell alcohol to a habitual drunk, it is rarely enforced, a prosecutor said.

“We’ve never taken it that far. We use it more as a tool: ‘Stop being such a nuisance, and wait to get home to get drunk,’ ” Gloucester Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert D. Hicks said.

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