Open Container Laws
UPDATED: May 24, 2013
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Open container laws prohibit open alcoholic beverages in a vehicle. Although they are misdemeanor offenses, open container offenses can lead to other serious consequences under certain circumstances.
Open Container Overview
Every state has some version of open container laws, but the general purpose across every state is to prohibit people from consuming alcoholic beverages while driving. In order to demonstrate a violation of open container laws, the state must prove the following:
- There was an open container of an alcoholic beverage - The container can be any receptacle holding the beverage: beer can, wine bottle, flask, water bottle, etc. Officers are given discretion to evaluate the circumstances of the citation and rely on their training and experience to determine whether or not the substance in the container is alcoholic. If you believe the officer mistakenly cited you because the beverage contained no alcohol, consult an attorney.
- The defendant possessed the open container, as opposed to someone else in the vehicle - This is called establishing affirmative links—very similar to what would be required in a drug case. Affirmative links are factors that support the person had possession of the open container, and are based on factors such as whether or not: the container was found close to the defendant, the defendant had odor of the same beverage on their breath, or the defendant owned the vehicle. If more than one container is located, most states will charge this as one offense; not a new offense for each container discovered. Anyone who is in possession can be charged, not just the driver.
- The container was in a vehicle - Most states prohibit the open container from being anywhere in a vehicle. The term vehicle applies to cars, trucks, or any other motor operated transit device. Some states do have some exceptions for larger passenger vehicles like a bus, limousine, or RV. If the open container is found in the passenger area, instead of the driver area, the location of the open container would be a defense to an open container violation.
If a person chooses to challenge the state on any of these requirements, or additional ones imposed under state law, they should contact a local attorney familiar with the process for assistance.
Consequences of Open Container Offense
An open container violation is often a ticketed offense like a speeding ticket. The officer will write out a ticket and have the defendant sign it based on their promise to appear at a later court date in municipal court. The punishment for an open container offense is usually a fine, which can be as high as $1000, but jail time may be a possible punishment depending on the state and the circumstances of the citation.
More importantly, an open container violation can lead to other more serious charges. If an officer smells the odor of alcohol and sees and open container, this may be enough to undertake a driving under the influence (DUI) investigation. A DUI arrest will result in substantially increased punishments, and will be significantly more costly than an open container ticket.
Even if the driver is not intoxicated, an open container can result in more trouble. Having an open container is an illegal action that gives an officer the authority to search the vehicle for any other open containers. While searching for open containers, if the officer happens to find any other contraband, like a controlled substance, the driver faces arrest and conviction on those separate charges as well.
Open container violations are not that serious of an offense by themselves and can often be handled just like a traffic ticket. However, if the open container ticket was written in error or the violation led to more serious charges, it's generally wise to consult an attorney as soon as possible.