Open Containers: Is It Bad to Have Open Alcohol in My Car?


Open Container Laws in Texas

It’s common knowledge that driving drunk on Texas roads and highways is a very bad idea. Getting pulled over and arrested for a DWI can drastically alter a person’s life for years into the future. Even a conviction for a first-time DWI can mean thousands of dollars in fines, lost job opportunities and months of probation.

However, some people are wondering about another scenario: what if the driver is perfectly sober but the passenger in the car is sipping an alcoholic beverage? Is this against the law? A drunk driver with an open container can receive enhanced DWI penalties but this isn’t necessarily the case for an intoxicated passenger. Learn more about the myths and facts concerning open container laws in the Lone Star State.

The Letter of the Law

In Chapter 49 of the Texas Penal Code, the law is stated clearly and plainly: In Texas, it is absolutely illegal to have an open container of alcohol in the passenger area of a vehicle while that vehicle is on a public roadway. This law applies even if the vehicle is parked and the engine has been turned off.

For the purposes of the law, an “open container” is any alcoholic beverage container which has been opened, has a broken seal or which has its contents partially removed. The passenger area of a vehicle is any space inside the vehicle with the exception of:

  • The trunk
  • A locked glove box or storage compartment
  • Behind the last row of seats in a vehicle which has no trunk

The simple fact is that having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle on a public roadway in Texas is illegal and can lead to criminal penalties.

How the Law Works and Exceptions

If a person is pulled over and they are found to have an open alcohol container on their person or within reach, they will likely be given a field sobriety test. If the officer determines that they are intoxicated, they will be arrested and charged with a DWI. The open container can lead to enhanced penalties on top of the DWI.

If a driver is pulled over and the passenger or a person in the back seat has an open container, the driver can still be issued a citation. This is because the driver is considered to be legally responsible for following the law while operating the vehicle and allowing a passenger to break the law is grounds for a citation issued to the driver.

In nearly all cases, a person who has an open container but is not intoxicated must be issued a citation rather than being arrested and taken to jail.

There are a couple of exceptions to open container laws. They include:

  • Open containers that are in a locked area away from the driver or out of the driver’s reach
  • Open containers which are empty of any alcohol

For example, a person with an open bottle of whiskey in their trunk who is not intoxicated won’t be issued a citation. In fact, the officer may never know that the alcohol is in the vehicle.

A person with empty beer cans in their backseat may not necessarily be issued a citation. If the officer determines that the empty containers are old and have not been recently consumed, he may not issue a citation. However, the officer may search the vehicle to inspect the containers or administer a field sobriety test.

Furthermore, it is perfectly legal to sit in a vehicle on private property with open alcohol containers. However, as soon as the vehicle enters a public roadway, the open container laws take effect.

Legal Penalties

In Texas, a violation of the open container laws is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine not to exceed $500. People charged with this offense who are not intoxicated must be allowed to leave after signing a citation which requires them to appear in court.

Some people may think that an open container violation is no big deal. However, these violations can be used as evidence by the prosecution in a larger case. Hiring a defense attorney is the best way to deal with these charges by countering the prosecution’s evidence and claims.

Have you been charged for having an open container in your vehicle? If so, attorney Matthew Sharp can help. Contact his office today at 713-868-6100.