The dangers of drinking and driving are all too well known, but many remain puzzled about the rules surrounding open containers of alcohol in a vehicle. After all, regulating the behavior of the driver is one thing, but why try to punish the passenger for having a drink or two? Read on to learn the reasoning behind open container laws and how to stay on the right side of the law.
Not the Time or the Place
To look at driving and riding in a vehicle another way, the laws about driving in a vehicle are based on the idea that alcohol is inappropriate in those circumstances regardless of who is doing the drinking. While there are undoubtedly exceptions, many times when there is a passenger who is drinking, there is a driver who is drinking. Since it's against the law for drivers to drink alcohol when behind the wheel (even if they pass a field sobriety test), one way to ensure that doesn't happen is to ban all open containers inside a car. You are still free to transport unopened containers as long as they are not within easy reach of a passenger. It should be mentioned that state laws about open containers vary, and there are a few states that regulate this particular issue differently.
Definitions of Alcohol and Open Containers
It really doesn't matter what the beverage is called—if it contains any alcohol at all, it meets the standards. As long as the beverage is unsealed or opened, it can be beer, wine, a mixed drink, or hard liquor. If the container has been opened and unsealed but is not accessible by the driver or passengers, state law can vary. For example, if you are transporting a bottle of cognac and it has been opened, you might be in trouble in most states unless it's stored in your trunk.
Interestingly enough, if state law prohibits the presence of an open container in the passenger section of a vehicle, it does not matter whether or not the vehicle was parked or in motion. So, that means that if you are parked with the engine off in the parking lot of a park and have an open container, you and any passengers are probably breaking the law. In states that have open container laws, there are exceptions made for party buses, limos, ride sharing situations like Uber or Lyft, and in the back section of motor homes.
Punishments to Expect
Open container violations are usually treated as traffic violations or misdemeanors resulting in a ticket or fine rather than jail time. Often, open container infractions are the icing on the more serious cake of a driving under the influence (DUI) charge. Speak to a criminal defense attorney to find out more about this level of offense.