How Do Texas “Open Container” Laws Work?
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood areas of Texas criminal law is the prohibition on “open containers” of alcohol in vehicles. Some people mistakenly believe it is okay to have an open container in their vehicle as long as they are not the driver or their car is actually running. There has also been a good deal of confusion over restaurants that now offer “to-go” alcoholic beverages and whether that is enough to get you in legal trouble.
Here is a brief explanation of Texas open container laws and how you can avoid a possible ticket and court summons.
Possession of an Alcoholic Beverage in a Motor Vehicle
The basic open container law is spelled out in Section 49.031 of the Texas Penal Code. It states that a person breaks the law if they “knowingly possess an open container in a passenger area of a motor vehicle that is located on a public highway, regardless of whether the vehicle is being operated or is stopped or parked.” Let’s break down each part of this phrase.
First, an “open container” means any type of receptacle that contains some amount of alcohol. This can mean a can, a bottle, or even a plastic cup. Merely having a sealed, close container of alcohol in your car is fine. For example, if you buy a six-pack of beer at the store and it remains in your car unopened while you drive home, there is no problem. But if even one of those cans has its pull-tab opened, now you have an illegal “open container” in your car.
Second, the open container must be located in the “passenger area” of the vehicle. Notice the law says nothing about the driver having an open container. It is actually illegal for anyone in the vehicle, including a passenger, to possess an open container in the “passenger area,” which basically means the entire seating area. The law does exclude a locked glove compartment, a trunk, or if the vehicle has no trunk the “area behind the last upright seat of the vehicle.” There is also a separate exception for certain types of passenger vehicles, such as limousines, taxicabs, and motor homes. Generally speaking, it is okay for a passenger in those vehicles to have an open container, but not the driver.
Third, the vehicle itself must be “on a public highway,” i.e., a public street. The law is clear that the vehicle does not actually have to be moving. If you are sitting in a car that is parked on the side of the street, it is still illegal to possess an open container while sitting inside the vehicle.
The Penalties for an Open Container Violation
An open container violation is a Class C misdemeanor. This is the lowest possible degree of criminal offense you can be charged with in Texas, basically the equivalent of a traffic ticket. The good news is that you cannot be arrested solely for an open container violation. The officer will instead issue a citation and order you to appear in court at a later date. If convicted in court, you face no more than a $500 fine and no jail time.
However, a misdemeanor conviction will still appear on your record. So if you are looking to contest an open container charge–or perhaps a more serious crime arising from such an incident, like drunk driving–it is best to speak with an experienced Pearland DWI defense lawyer who can represent you in court. Contact Keith B. French, PLLC, today to schedule a consultation.