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RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected a challenge to a Virginia law that allows police to arrest people designated as “habitual drunkards” if they are caught with alcohol, finding that the state has a “legitimate interest” in discouraging alcohol abuse.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds a lower court judge who dismissed the lawsuit last year. But one of the judges sharply criticized the law, saying it “criminalizes the otherwise legal behavior of individuals suffering from a serious illness.”

The Legal Aid Justice Center argued in its lawsuit that the law criminalizes addiction, punishes homeless alcoholics who have nowhere else to drink but in public and violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

But the court said the law “does not single out homeless alcoholics for different treatment.”

“We emphasize what we hope would be obvious: it would be unlawful for the state to simply round up “undesirable” persons based on their perceived status as addicts or drunkards. ... It is inimical to personal liberty to bring criminal charges on the basis of who someone is,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote for the panel.

“But Virginia has been ... careful to observe that line. It has prohibited individuals deemed at a higher risk of alcohol abuse from possessing or consuming alcohol. This includes not only habitual drunkards, but also people who have been convicted of drunk driving and those under twenty-one,” he added.

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