Can Passengers Drink In a Car?

DUI or Driving Under the Influence of alcohol, drugs and/or other intoxicating substances spells a number of woes to drivers especially when they are pulled over by law enforcement officers. Every driver with a valid driver’s license knows that it is legally unacceptable to operate a vehicle, especially when inebriated or under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.

Being impaired while operating a vehicle puts the driver and other road users at risk. In some cases, it may lead to accidents with fatal consequences. When it comes to operating a vehicle when drunk, the major question is to what extent does the law frown upon this? Can a driver who is sober be in the same vehicle as a passenger who is inebriated and drinking heavily? Does the law frown upon a drunk passenger? These are questions to refer to your criminal defense attorney

The answers to these questions are dependent on the state laws, local ordinances and the specifics of the case at hand.

Open Container Laws

Most states in the U.S. have a law that prohibits a driver to have open bottles, cans, containers or other items containing alcoholic beverages inside the vehicle while driving. The laws also extend to cover the presence of empty yet open alcoholic beverage cans, containers, and bottles. In addition, such containers should also not be readily found in areas like sidewalks and on the street.

Generally, a driver may run into trouble if one or more of the passengers in the vehicle is consuming an alcoholic beverage as this means that there is the presence of an open alcoholic beverage container, can or bottle in the vehicle. While the open container law is stricter in some states than in others, some states have been known to allow the presence of unsealed containers of alcohol in secured locations only. This means that a driver can have an unsealed container of alcoholic beverages in his or her glove compartment, trunk or other areas that are considered secured spots in the vehicle.

Of all states in the United States, 43 states practice open container laws. 40 of these 43 states are known to conform to the federal standards which have been clearly stated in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). The TEA-21 Act prescribes and provisions all open container laws and all the other road safety measures that are to be abided by.

In most states, a driver may earn a citation for an open container violation if the passenger with the open container is deemed to be within the reach of the driver. However, in some cases, both the driver and passenger in possession of open containers of alcohol may be cited for a violation, depending on the facts of the case and the discretion of the police officer.

In such a case as this, the Blood Alcohol Concentration of the passenger may be irrelevant to the citation.

Are There Any Exceptions To The TEA-21?

While 43 states have been reported to have adopted the open container laws, 40 of which follow the TEA-21 Act, there are some states where an exception to the general rule exists.

In the United States, a total of 7 states at present do not abide by the open container laws in action which means that a driver may be allowed to safely pass without punishment if the passengers have been caught consuming alcoholic beverages. It also means that in these states, only the Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) of the driver matters to the police officers when considering a case of DUI.

The seven states exempt from the Open container laws include Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, West Virginia, Connecticut, Virginia, and Delaware.

However, the fact that these states do not have open container laws in operation does not mean that there aren’t any local ordinances that prohibit such practices.

Of all the states in the U.S., 3 states have adopted a form of the open container laws that do not conform with the guidelines laid out in the TEA-21 Act. These 3 states are Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee.

Can A Passenger Consume Alcoholic Beverages In An Automobile Where The Open Container Laws Are Nor Practiced?

In states where open container laws are not in operation, a passenger is allowed to consume as much alcohol as possible without the fear of being written up or cited for a violation. However, even in states that do not comply with the TEA-21 Act, local ordinances may determine whether or not a passenger is allowed to engage in such an act as this.

In states where local ordinances ban the presence of open containers in vehicles, then the passenger may run into trouble with the law in the state. For states that do not have clear local ordinances against open containers, a passenger may be allowed free access to drinking alcohol from an open container even when in an operational vehicle.

Of all the states in the U.S., Mississippi is regarded as the most accommodating state. The state of Mississippi allows drivers to drink and drive, so long as their BAC remains under the legally recognized level.

However, to protect their communities, some municipalities have outlined some exceptions to the open container laws, especially to cater to the needs and lifestyles of tourists. The French Quarter, New Orleans is one of such municipalities that has outlined exceptions to the open container laws to boost tourism.

In most of the municipalities where these exceptions exist, it is important to note that the presence of open containers in vehicles is not allowed. This means that open containers can be seen on the sidewalks and streets but not in vehicles let alone, a moving vehicle.

The French Quarter, known for vendors selling drive-thru cocktails, allows drivers and passengers both to access open containers in the vehicle as long as the driver does not consume the content of the open container.

It is recommended that drivers and passengers become familiar with their state laws and local ordinances which spell out the dos and don’ts for DUI and the presence of alcohol in vehicles.

Check out our most recent blog post about Structured Sentencing in North Carolina, How Much Time am I Looking at? 

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