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Open Container Laws

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Definition - What does Open Container Laws mean?

Open container laws are any laws that refer to the regulation of open containers of alcoholic beverages in either a vehicle or in a public place. A federal program was established in 1998 called the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) to encourage states to begin to create and enforce laws to prohibit the consumption and possession of alcoholic drinks in motor vehicles and in public.

The federal program has outlined certain requirements which must be met by the state's open container laws. States that do not comply are forced to transfer a percentage of their state's highway construction funds to the state's safety programs to fund programs which promote drunken driving countermeasures, enforce DUI driving laws, or support the state's hazard elimination program.

Under the federal open container law the states must enact the following:

  1. It is illegal to possess any open alcoholic beverage container and consume this beverage;
  2. The law covers the passenger area of any motor vehicle, including unlocked glove compartments and any other areas of the vehicle that are readily accessible to the driver or passengers while in their seats;
  3. 3. The law applies to all open alcoholic beverages including wine, spirits, beer that have 0.5% or more of alcohol by volume;
  4. The law also applies to the vehicles occupants except if they are passengers in specifically designed and maintained vehicles which are used "primarily for the transportation of people for compensation (such as buses, taxi cabs, and limousines), or the living quarters of motor homes"
  5. The law applies to all vehicles on public highways or on the shoulder or right-of-way of public highways.
  6. The law requires primary enforcement of the law, rather than probable cause that another violation had been committed before allowing enforcement of the open container law.

Penalties assessed for violating open container laws vary by state and jurisdiction. Penalties can range from $100 to $500 but may be higher if an individual has multiple DUI convictions. Drivers who are arrested for driving under the influence and have an open container of alcohol in their vehicle may receive harsher sentences. For instance, in the state of Texas, drivers arrested for DUI with an open alcoholic container are required to spend 6 days in jail. Most states have also outlawed possession of an open container of alcohol in public, although penalties and fines widely vary.

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