Open container laws are defined as laws that limit or prohibit the possession of open containers of alcohol in public areas. These laws are meant to discourage the crime of public intoxication and to encourage orderly and respectful behavior in the common spaces of towns and communities. While some states have enacted open container laws, the public consumption of alcohol is often regulated at the city or county level.
What Constitutes a Public Space?
Open container laws typically prohibit the possession of an open container of alcohol in public spaces. What exactly constitutes a public space depends on the laws of your particular city or state. Some common examples of locations where open container laws are likely to be enforced include:
- Public sidewalks;
- Public parks;
- In the common areas of hotels or apartment buildings;
- On school or government property; or
- In parking lots.
Generally, if the property is owned by a local or state government, or shared by the general community, it is safe to assume that open container laws apply, and public consumption of alcohol should be avoided.
Public Consumption in a Vehicle
Although we may think of our vehicles as “private” locations where we are free to do as we like, most open container laws prohibit the possession of any container in a vehicle holding an alcoholic beverage that has been opened or otherwise significantly altered. This law is meant to discourage or prevent circumstances when a driver may be drinking and driving or committing a DUI.
In order to be charged for having an open container in a vehicle, several elements must be met. First, you must be driving on a public road or highway. These laws typically do not apply to private roads, or when your car is sitting in its garage. Second, an open container of some sort must be in the vehicle. This can be a can, bottle, or other item meant to conceal the fact that the liquid inside is alcohol. Additionally, the item must be open in some fashion. This does not require that the top is taken off, but that the seal has been broken or the contents of the beverage have been accessed.
Third, the container must be within reach of a driver or passenger. Thus, for instance, if a driver has a corked bottle of wine in the trunk from a dinner party, this will generally not be considered an open container offense. However, if the driver has an open can of beer in the purse beside his or her seat, this is likely sufficient to be a violation. Notably, even if only the passenger is in possession of an open container, the driver may still be charged for allowing an open container within the vehicle.
Exceptions to Open Container Laws
A few notable areas, including Las Vegas and New Orleans, do not prohibit open containers in public, although the containers must be plastic. Most locations that do not enforce open container requirements do so in order to promote tourism in the area. This does not mean, however, that they tolerate all alcohol-related crimes. To the contrary, most continue to enforce crimes against excessive consumption of alcohol that endangers the public, including DUIs.