Drunk driving is never a good thing. It is responsible for over 10,000 deaths each year. In fact, every two minutes, a person is injured in a drunk driving crash. That’s why you just don’t do it, no matter the circumstances.
But what about drinking alcohol as a passenger in a motor vehicle? Is that legal? Is the driver liable for the passenger’s open container of alcohol?
The laws regarding passenger consumption of alcohol vary from state to state. These laws all relate to each state’s specific open container laws. Depending on where you are, it may be legal to drink as a passenger in a car, although doing so is illegal in the vast majority of states.
More information on state laws regarding the passenger consumption of alcohol is provided below. Continue on to see what the laws are in your state.
Open Container Federal Requirements
In the vast majority of states, it is illegal for passengers to drink alcohol while in a vehicle. It is also illegal for either the passenger or the driver to posses an open container of alcohol while in a vehicle. Even a half empty bottle of liquor in the back seat is grounds for citation.
39 states plus the District of Columbia adhere to the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Also known as TEA-21, the act establishes the open container guidelines that state laws must follow. States that do conform to TEA-21 receive certain federal funds for public highways.
For starters, TEA-21 prohibits the possession of any open alcoholic beverage container in a vehicle. It further prohibits the consumption of any alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle by anyone in it, including the driver.
Open alcoholic beverage containers are prohibited anywhere in the passenger or driver area of the vehicle. This means anywhere that anyone in the motor vehicle can reach from the seating position while the vehicle is in operation, including the glove compartment. Open alcoholic beverages can legally be stored in areas such as the trunk.
Once again, these laws apply to all forms of alcoholic beverages. It doesn’t matter if the alcohol in question is beer, wine, or liquor. The laws, as mentioned above, also apply to all the vehicle’s occupants, including the driver and passengers.
Exceptions to TEA-21 regulations are made for motor vehicles that are designed, maintained, and used primarily for the transportation of people for compensation. So passengers in buses, taxis, and limousines are sometimes allowed to possess and consume alcoholic beverages in a vehicle. Those vehicles that have living quarters such as a house coach or house trailer also have different laws.
TEA-21 goes on to say that states must specify primary enforcement. Under this type of law, an officer does not need to show they had probable cause to enforce the law.
Finally, many states make exceptions to TEA-21 regulations regarding unfinished wine purchased in a restaurant. Many of these states allow the wine to be taken home in the passenger area of the vehicle. Although, of course, drinking it or driving above the legal limit is naturally not allowed.
States That Allow Passenger Consumption of Alcohol
There are 11 states that currently allow the passenger consumption of alcohol. However, the laws in each state are different from one another. It is also important to point out that in no part of the country is it legal to drive under the influence of alcohol.
The states that allow the passenger consumption of alcohol are Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Missouri, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming. Passengers may drink freely from open containers of alcohol in all of these states.
Arkansas and West Virginia also have lenient open container laws. Though passengers may not drink from an open container of alcohol in a car, they can possess open containers of alcohol without consequence. However, if they are caught drinking from these containers, they will be ticketed.
Finally, there is Mississippi, the most lenient of all states as far as open container laws and vehicles go. As mentioned above, the state allows passengers the freedom to drink freely from open containers of alcohol while in a motor vehicle. But the state takes it one step further than that. In Mississippi, it is actually legal fort he driver to drink from an open container of alcohol as long as their Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) remains below the national .08% legal limit.
Exceptions to These Laws
Though none of the states that have banned open containers from motor vehicles have exceptions to their open container laws, several local jurisdictions in the states that do allow the passenger consumption of alcohol do make exceptions.
In certain cities in states that do allow for the passenger consumption of alcohol, local laws are in place that restrict or limit this action. These local areas do not allow passengers to drink from or possess open containers of alcohol no matter what the national regulations are. With that said, it is important to check both state and local laws being consuming alcohol in a motor vehicle as a passenger.
States That Outlaw Passenger Consumption of Alcohol
As is mentioned above, the vast majority of states outlaw passengers in motor vehicles to drink or possess open containers of alcohol. These thirty-nine states include Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
The District of Columbia also has laws in place that outlaw the consumption or possession of open containers of alcohol in motor vehicles. Guam and Puerto Rico have similar laws as well. In both of these U.S. territories prohibit having an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle.
What Happens If You Are Cited for Drinking as a Passenger
The penalty regarding open containers of alcohol in motor vehicles in those states that outlaw the act vary from state to state. In the vast majority, both the driver and the passenger are penalized, with the driver taking the biggest portion of the blame. In any instance, the passenger’s blood alcohol content is irrelevant. If you have an open container of alcohol in one of these states, you’re going to get cited.
Final Thoughts on Passenger Consumption of Alcohol
The vast majority of the time it is not legal to have an open container of alcohol as a passenger in a motor vehicle. Naturally, it is also illegal to consume said alcohol. You are better off not drinking as a passenger in a motor vehicle unless you specifically know for a fact that it is allowed in your area. The penalty is often severe and not worth the risk.
Simply put, you must understand your local area laws regarding this matter. As is mentioned above, they vary from state to state and county to county. So let the information outlined above be the starting point for your research into the passenger consumption of alcohol.