An open container law is almost exactly what it sounds like: a law that prohibits open containers of alcohol in certain areas, such as in public places or in motor vehicles. The terms for these types of laws may vary from state to state, but all states generally agree that a violation of an open container law will be considered a criminal offense.
As for open container laws that specifically refer to motor vehicles, the federal government has established guidelines, regarding open container laws for the states to follow, under the Transportation and Equity Act of 2001 (TEA-21).
According to the federal law TEA-21, there are certain standards that a state must include in its open container statutes, such as that it apply to all kinds of alcoholic beverages and that law enforcement officers will have the authority to stop a motor vehicle in order to enforce an open container statute. There are exceptions, however, in some states.
States that fully comply with the standards of TEA-21 will receive federal funding to allocate towards roadway improvements. In contrast, the states that do not comply with TEA-21 will be forced to dedicate a portion of their funds towards alcohol awareness programs.
As of present day, 39 out of the 50 states are considered to be in full compliance with TEA-21.
How Do State Open Container Laws for Vehicles Differ?
There are many different versions of open container laws across the states who have enacted them. As discussed above, 39 states (including the District of Columbia), are already in full compliance with the federal standards provided by TEA-21.
This means that in those 39 states, it will be considered a violation of an open container law if a container containing alcohol is found in any of the following areas of a motor vehicle:
- In the passenger area of any automobile;
- In an unlocked glove compartment; and
- In any area of a vehicle that is readily accessible to the driver or seated passengers.
In states, such as Alaska, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Wyoming, their laws provide only partial bans for open containers in vehicles. While there may be different reasons for why these states have decided to enact such statutes, they are not in full compliance with what is required by TEA-21.
Another set of states (e.g., Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Mississippi, Missouri, Virginia, and West Virginia) permit their passengers to imbibe while the vehicle is in motion. Ordinarily, under the terms of TEA-21, this would not be allowed.
Finally, only the state of Mississippi permits its drivers to consume alcohol while driving. However, the blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”) of the driver must still be below the regulatory limit (usually below 0.08% BAC); otherwise, it will be considered a DUI offense.
What are Local Laws for Open Containers?
The local laws of the municipalities in each state may also have their own unique open container laws for motor vehicles. Whether a local law complies with TEA-21 or not, however, will not have an effect on the entire state’s compliance with the federal guidelines.
For example, the city of New Orleans, which is located in Louisiana state, permits anyone to carry an open container in its French Quarter on the street or in its parks, so long as the alcohol is not held in a glass container. This is why people celebrating Mardi Gras are often depicted walking around Bourbon Street with plastic bottles or party cups.
Another city where a person can walk around with an open container of alcohol without the fear of committing a criminal offense is in the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia. Like New Orleans, it is permitted in public places, such as sidewalks and parks. Unlike New Orleans, however, a person can also have an open container in their vehicle in Savannah.
It is important to keep in mind that local laws for open containers will vary drastically between different towns and cities even more so than those differences found between states. Part of the reason for this is because there is no uniform definition for the phrase “public place” and no existing federal law that explains it either.
To learn more about the open container laws that apply in a particular jurisdiction, you should refer to the laws that cover your municipality or consult with a lawyer for further and proper legal advice.
Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with State Open Container Laws?
In many states, a minor violation of an open container law will only receive a punishment for an infraction, which usually involves having to pay some amount of fines. However, for more serious violations of open container laws, like those that involve motor vehicles or minors below the legal age limit for alcohol (i.e., 21 years old), the punishments may be much more severe.
Therefore, if you have been arrested for violating an open container law, for drunk driving, or you simply need to know more information about the open container laws in your area, then you should contact either a criminal defense lawyer or a specialized DUI lawyer. They will be able to discuss what you might be liable for and can then determine if there are any potential defenses that you may be able to use against the claims in your case.