Every state has some form of an open container law. These laws generally prohibit open containers of alcohol in vehicles. However, state laws differ somewhat on the details of what's illegal and exceptions to the general prohibition. This article covers what most states prohibit, some possible penalties for open container violations, and some of the possible loopholes and exceptions that might apply in your state.
Generally, open container laws prohibit any person from possessing or consuming an alcoholic beverage in a vehicle. Typically, these laws make it illegal to have an alcoholic beverage in a car if:
Location of the vehicle. Open container restrictions generally apply to any vehicle or electric bicycle located on a public roadway. Some states also include "waters of the state," which would mean open containers on moving boats are prohibited in that state. Generally, having an open container while driving in a state or federal park is also unlawful.
Location within the vehicle. The main concern of open container laws is the consumption of alcohol inside vehicles. But given that people sometimes need to transport an already opened bottle of wine or old Scotch, open container laws generally apply only to vehicle passenger areas. In other words, these types of laws allow motorists to transport open containers in the trunk of a vehicle (or behind the rear seat out of reach if there is no trunk). Some states also allow motorists to transport open bottles in the glove compartment or other out-of-reach places in vehicles.
Alcoholic beverages that are subject to open container laws. For the purpose of open container laws, "alcoholic beverage" generally includes any beer, malt beverage, wine, distilled spirit, mixed drink, and any other beverage composed of these alcoholic ingredients. However, many states do have exemptions for items that have less than .5% alcohol or for non-beverage alcohols like vanilla extract and cleaning chemicals.
Open containers of marijuana. Some of the states that have legalized the recreational and medical use of marijuana have enacted laws that prohibit the use or possession of marijuana in a vehicle. These restrictions sometimes prohibit the possession of any open or unsealed marijuana container within the passenger area of the vehicle.
Generally, open container laws include exceptions for certain types of vehicles and specific situations. These exceptions vary by jurisdiction.
Certain vehicles. Most states have special laws which apply to specific vehicles. These types of exceptions might include:
Wine leftover from a restaurant. Most states have special laws regarding restaurant wine. After a nice dinner, the patrons may have not finished the wine bottle they ordered. Like a doggy bag for alcohol, the restaurant is generally permitted to place a seal in the bottle so that the patrons can legally transport it home. As with other open containers, the resealed beverage must still be stored outside of the passenger area.
To-go drinks. Some states have expanded the restaurant wine exception to allow for any mixed drink to be transported. The alcoholic drink must be purchased from the restaurant, have a dated receipt, and the restaurant must place the container in a tamper-proof, transparent bag that is visibly sealed.
Tailgate parties. Open container laws generally only apply to vehicles being operated on public roads. So drinking on the tailgate of a non-running truck on private property is generally legal. Some states have special exemptions protecting this recreational activity.
In most states, an open container violation will be charged against the owner or driver of the vehicle, regardless of who was holding or possessing the alcohol.
Open container penalties vary greatly by state. For example, an open container violation in Utah is a class C misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $750 and a maximum jail sentence of 90 days. But an open container violation in Vermont is a civil penalty and will only carry a fine of $25 to $500. An open container violation in a federal park carries up to six months jail, $5,000 in fines, and five years of probation.