VIRGINIA BEACH-Alfred "James" Forbes Jr. has been booked into the city jail more times than he can remember.
In the past 15 years, records show he's been incarcerated 27 times. Since 1993 when he was first booked, it's been 60. In the past five years alone, he's spent nearly 800 days in custody.
"It's been a nightmare," Forbes said during a recent jail interview. "I'm a household name here, and I hate it."
His crime? He's legally been declared a drunk in Virginia.
Forbes is one of the hundreds — possibly thousands — of people who've earned the title "habitual drunkard" under an obscure state law that dates back to the 1800s.
The statute allows judges to slap the label on anyone convicted of driving under the influence — even just one time — as well as someone who has "shown himself to be a habitual drunkard."
Once a person gets the designation, they are no longer allowed to have alcohol and can be arrested anytime they're found with it. Just being near it — or smelling like it — can land them behind bars. A conviction can result in a year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.
Virginia and Utah are the only two states with such a law, according to research conducted by the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia. The organization is challenging the constitutionality of the law in federal court.
In this state, the statute originally dates back to 1873, said Elaine Poon, managing attorney for the nonprofit that helps low-income clients. The law was later amended in the 1930s, around when prohibition ended, Poon said.
Slightly more than 1,700 people were interdicted — or declared a habitual drunkard — in Virginia from 2007 to 2018, according to records obtained from the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The department maintains a database of everyone in the state who's earned the label since 2007, said spokeswoman Dawn Eischen. How many were interdicted before then is unknown, Eischen said.
Two-thirds of the people listed — or 1,156 — got their designation in Virginia Beach.
The city with the next largest tally is Roanoke, with 162. Other cities in the area labeled much fewer people during that same time period. Chesapeake had 17; Newport News, 14; Portsmouth, 9; Norfolk, 3; and Suffolk, 2. Many of Virginia's cities and counties didn't have any.
While some believe the law helps cut down on drunken driving and keeps people safe, attempts have been made to repeal or challenge it. Over the past two years, legislation introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, sought to nullify it, but the proposal died in committees both years.
In 2016, the Legal Aid Justice Center filed a class-action lawsuit in Roanoke's federal court on behalf of five homeless men who had been declared habitual drunks. The suit contends that the statute criminalizes addiction and punishes homeless alcoholics for doing something that's typically legal.
The 15-member 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case in January, after it was earlier dismissed by a federal judge in Roanoke and a three-judge appellate panel. A decision is pending.
"This is a clear-cut case of criminalizing poverty," said Mary Frances Charlton, a former Legal Aid attorney. "It treats fundamentally what is a public health problem as a criminal justice problem. What these folks need is access to affordable housing and medical care — not incarceration."
In 2006, the Virginia Beach Commonwealth's Attorney was looking to reduce drunken driving in the city.
At the time, 10 percent of the state's impaired driving arrests were made in Virginia Beach even though the city only accounted for 6 percent of the population then, according to a story published in The Virginian-Pilot.
So the prosecutor's office decided to start seeking interdiction orders for residents who'd been convicted of two or more DUIs.
The thinking was that a person who'd committed multiple drunken driving offenses likely has an alcohol problem that's putting the public at risk, said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Andy Rosenberg, who handles the city's interdiction cases. In fact, a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control estimates that the average drunken driver has gotten behind the wheel impaired more than 80 times before his or her first arrest.
"The whole point of our system here is to cut down on the number of DUIs and keep our citizens safe," Rosenberg said. "If we can do one little thing to stop someone from hurting themselves or someone else, that's a good thing."
The city's drunken driving statistics from 2000 to 2017, however, shows that the number of arrests actually spiked after the policy took effect in 2006. Two years later, they reached an all-time high of 2,733 compared to 1,959 when the policy started.
The numbers didn't start steadily declining until around 2014, when ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft began operating in the area and became a popular option for those wanting to avoid driving drunk.
The rise after the policy began could be explained by a number of factors, said Macie Allen, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office. An increase in the city's population or enhanced police enforcement could be among them, she said.
Some critics of the habitual drunkard law believe the city uses it to keep homeless drunks away from its highly profitable resort area. But Rosenberg said that's not so.
Cases like Forbes' — where they've sought to interdict a homeless person — are rare, making up for about 3 percent of the total cases at most, he said.
When prosecutors ask for a homeless person to be declared a habitual drunkard, it's usually because police have informed them about someone who's repeatedly become disruptive or violent while under the influence, Rosenberg said.
"We're not trying to keep drunks out of sight or criminalizing the disease," he said. "If anything, it's a chance for us to help the interdicted person. By helping people deal with their alcoholism, we're helping our community."
Once prosecutors decide to seek an interdiction order, they file a petition, set a court date and serve the person with notice.
Because it's a civil proceeding, the court isn't required to appoint an attorney for those who can't afford to hire one. In about a quarter of the cases, the defendants don't show up, Rosenberg said.
After hearing the evidence, a judge decides whether to grant the order and how long it should last. Most are indefinite while some are for a stated period of time.
"The judge might choose to make it for two years, and if nothing happens during that time, it's dismissed," Rosenberg said.
An interdicted person can also petition to get the designation removed. If they go a couple of years without any alcohol-related offenses, they're often able to persuade a judge to lift it, Allen said.
Once an order is issued, the information is sent to the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which passes it on to its liquor stores. If an ABC store employee knowingly sells to a person on the list, they could also be charged and face up to a year in jail.
Forbes said he started drinking when he was about 17. His alcohol problem grew worse over the years, and he became homeless in 2004 when he broke up with the mother of his 18-year-old son.
He used to work as a cook but began taking odd jobs after he lost his home and identification, he said in a jail interview.
When he's not incarcerated, he hangs out at the Oceanfront. Sometimes he pools his money together with other homeless friends to get a hotel room.
Almost 15 years ago — in July 2004 — prosecutors filed a petition seeking to declare him a habitual drunkard. By then, Forbes had been convicted of being drunk in public 11 times in 16 months, the petition noted. A hearing was scheduled for the following month.
Forbes says he didn't go to court because he didn't know about the proceeding. Cases can't continue without proof of notice being served, but Forbes claims he didn't get it. With no opposition, the judge granted the prosecution's request.
Forbes doesn't understand why they sought to interdict him. He doesn't see himself as any kind of threat.
"I'm not driving," he said. "I'm not hurting anyone. It's just ridiculous."
His current jail stay is expected to last about 16 months, with a scheduled release date of Feb. 6, 2020, according to Forbes and the jail's website.
His crimes this time: being an interdicted person with alcohol, trespassing and violating a previous good behavior order by getting caught with alcohol again.
It all started on Oct. 6, when a Beach police officer claimed to have seen Forbes go into a public restroom at the Oceanfront with a beer in his hand and then leave without it, Forbes said. The officer said he found a cold beer in the trash in the restroom. He issued a summons to Forbes for being an interdicted person with alcohol but let him go.
Less than two weeks later, on Oct. 18, Forbes was arrested for trespassing at an Oceanfront Walgreens. He says a clerk told police he was panhandling at the store after being told to leave. He's been in jail ever since.
'A life sentence'
Three years ago, the Legal Aid Justice Center sued the top prosecutors in Roanoke and Richmond, claiming that they routinely use the law to brand homeless people alcoholics and then repeatedly jail them.
The lawsuit didn't challenge the law in its entirety — just how it's applied to homeless people. In fact, Legal Aid lawyers said they don't have a problem with Virginia Beach using it against people with multiple drunken driving convictions.
The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of five homeless men, argues that the law violates their rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. It also argues that it's unconstitutionally vague because it fails to define what a habitual drunkard is. And it contends that it violates the men's due-process rights because cases are processed in Civil Court where defendants are not guaranteed a lawyer or trial by jury.
Trevor Cox, deputy solicitor general with the Attorney General's Office, argued the case on behalf of the state. In his brief, Cox said that Virginia has a legitimate interest in protecting the safety and welfare of its citizens and in trying to curb substance abuse. He also argued that imprisonment is considered a lawful option for those who violate the state's drug and alcohol laws.
One of the homeless men listed in the complaint was once arrested for simply standing in the beer aisle at a Walmart, said Charlton, who originally argued the case on the men's behalf. She left the Legal Aid office last year and now works in Chicago.
Another man has spent more time in jail than out of it since being declared a habitual drunkard in 2012. The longest he's been out at one time is about 30 days, she said.
"It's like getting a life sentence, but on an installment plan," Charlton said. "Once they're out, it's just a matter of time before they'll be back.
"It's a revolving door."
In February, when Forbes got his most recent sentence, the judge realized she'd seen him before.
"Why do I recognize you?" Circuit Judge A. Bonwill Shockley asked.
He responded: "I've been before you a couple of times."
Forbes asked Shockley to spare him from jail and allow him to move in with a friend until his caseworker could help him get an apartment. He also said he would attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Defense attorney Gordon Zedd told the judge he'd seen a change in Forbes.
But prosecutor Jason Kowalski argued that Forbes' history was not on his side. His record includes 68 misdemeanor convictions since the mid-1990s, Kowalski said. Thirty were for possession of alcohol by an interdicted person and 15 for drinking in public. His records show he also has a misdemeanor sexual battery conviction from 2015. Forbes argued that many of the cases were dismissed.
"Every time he gets out, he goes and tries to find alcohol," Kowalski said. "He's had opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to get treatment and he hasn't done it."
The judge gave Forbes the maximum possible: a year on the possession of alcohol by an interdicted person, and a year for trespassing after being forbidden.
He can petition for early release if he completes the jail's 16-week recovery program for substance abusers, according to his sentencing order.
Forbes has submitted repeated requests to be placed there but remains on the waiting list. As of last week, he was No. 38 of 51 on the list, according to a jail spokeswoman.
In the meantime, he's working to get his name off the interdiction list and challenge a law that he believes is unfair.
He's written multiple letters to elected officials on the local, state and national level. He's also contacted civil attorneys and advocacy groups like the ACLU, NAACP, Urban League of Hampton Roads, the Innocence Project and Legal Aid Virginia Beach to enlist support.
"I love Va Beach, Virginia, and don't want to move, but that's what this order is all about, to move the homeless or put them in jail over and over," Forbes wrote in a 2015 letter to Shockley after one of his cases before her. "It has gotten out of hand."
At the end of his sentencing hearing last month, the judge urged him to get serious about addressing his alcohol problem.
"Mr. Forbes, you need to get yourself together because it's not a good thing when the judge recognizes your face."