Open Container Laws
Many people think about open container laws in terms of driving, and while those laws certainly exist, there are also laws concerning alcohol and drinking in the streets and parks. While the guiding principles behind these laws are similar, the specifics can vary considerably from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Note that some places have no open container laws at all.
Open container laws serve a variety of purposes -- from discouraging public drunkenness to securing federal transportation funding, much of which relies on the existence of these state laws.
Where Are Open Container Laws in Effect?
Depending on laws in your jurisdiction, open container laws might apply in any of these places:
- Public sidewalks
- Common areas of apartment buildings
- Residential neighborhoods
- Mobile homes
- School property
- Parking lots
Seven states, including Mississippi and Virginia, don’t have open container laws. This generally makes drinking in public legal in these states. Open container laws can also vary from town to town in the same state as well.
New Orleans, for instance, allows drinking in the streets as long as it’s from a plastic cup, but it prohibits open containers in parking lots. Las Vegas previously allowed drinking in the street from glass containers on most days but prohibited it on certain holidays. Recent changes in the law, however, have extended the ban on glassware to the rest of the year.
While these jurisdictions do not explicitly ban alcohol in public areas, they may have laws against drunken behavior in public, and almost every state has laws against alcohol containers in vehicles.
Open Container on Driver’s Person vs. Open Container in the Vehicle
Only one state, Mississippi, allows drivers to have alcohol on them while driving. Other states have specific open container laws for these settings, and violations are divided into two categories: an open container on the driver’s person or one just in the vehicle. Both infractions usually share these criteria:
- The vehicle was operating on a public road.
- The container contained alcohol when it was identified by the officer.
- The container’s seal was broken, or some of the alcohol had been removed.
In order to trigger an open container on the driver’s person law, the container must have been held by or located within reach of the driver while he or she was driving. Generally, the officer doesn’t need to prove that the driver was drinking from the container to cite this infraction. But many officers will administer some kind of DUI or DWI assessment if they suspect so.
A driver may also be cited for an open container located anywhere in the vehicle, including in the back seat. Containers in the trunk aren’t usually a problem, and some jurisdictions provide leniency for vehicles without a trunk, such as pickup trucks. They may permit storing alcohol during transport provided the container is inaccessible to the passengers. If the container is located on a passenger’s person, both that passenger and the driver may be cited for having the beverage in the car.
Charges Related to Alcohol Use in Public
Even jurisdictions without strict open container laws often enforce other community quality-of-life laws closely related to alcohol use. Some examples are:
- Public urination and indecent exposure
- Disorderly conduct
- Noise ordinance violations
- Driving under the influence
DUI/DWI charges can be a serious affair with costly criminal proceedings and potential jail time. A DUI/DWI conviction can lead to sky-high insurance premiums and a suspended or revoked license.
Public urination convictions can also carry long-term consequences depending on the exact nature of the situation. For example, if children are present, it may lead to a sex offense conviction and inclusion in a state’s sex offender registry.
Contesting Open Container Citations
An open container citation can result in fines and other penalties. Insurance companies can also consider drivers with open container citations to be at an increased risk for a DUI/DWI charge. You may want to contest open container citations to establish whether specific actions violated the law. A criminal defense attorney, especially one with DUI case experience, can review the facts of a case and provide guidance on the best course of action.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.