Is it legal for you to carry a plastic mug full of booze while walking down the main street of a city? Can you drink a beer while riding in the passenger front seat of your friend's car? While both involve open containers of alcohol, the laws governing 'open containers' and public drinking are not quite the same. While nearly every state bans open containers of alcohol in vehicles, restrictions on drinking or possessing open alcoholic beverages outside of a motor vehicle in public tend to vary by community. Where these restrictions on public drinking exist, the laws purport to serve a number of goals. Most notably, the restrictions seek to:
- Maintain the quality-of-life for community residents and businesses,
- Prevent people from being drunk in public,
- Reduce rowdy and disruptive behavior, and
- Curtail nuisances, such as littering and public urination, concurrent with public drinking.
Of course, not every state or municipality prohibits drinking or carrying alcoholic beverages in public places, such as sidewalks and city parks. A few notable tourist destinations, like Las Vegas and New Orleans, famously lack such prohibitions. You can learn more about where you can and can't have an open container of alcohol below.
Open Container Laws: What Are They?
'Open container' laws refer to the prohibition of having any container with alcohol beverages or other intoxicants being open, possessed, and/or consumed in a motor vehicle operating on a public highway or right-of-way. Open container laws should not be confused with other statutes or municipal ordinances that restrict where people can drink alcohol in public (outside of motor vehicles) or criminalize public intoxication. While there is no federal 'open container' law, over 40 states prohibit the consumption or possession of an open alcohol container while in a motor vehicle.
Open container laws aim to promote public safety these ways:
- Prevent car, bus, and other motor vehicle accidents outlawing the use of alcohol by drivers and passengers; and
- Maintain federal highway construction fund subsidies for states (under federal law, states that lack open container laws lose federal transportation subsidies).
Congress passed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) in 1998 to give states a financial incentive for restricting drinking in motor vehicles. States that fail to enact open alcohol container laws lose a portion of federal highway construction funds.
As an example of a law promulgated toward those aims, the Arizona open container statute makes it a crime to "possess an open container of spirituous liquor within the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle that is located on any public highway or right-of-way of a public highway in this state."
Public Drinking Laws: How Are They Different?
While open container laws restrict the possession of open containers in motor vehicles, public drinking laws criminalize consumption of alcohol or possession of opened alcoholic beverages outside of specific places like private homes, clubs, or restaurants. These laws not only presume to protect communities by reducing injuries from drunk driving (DUI and DWI) but also to reduce annoyances from disorderly conduct.
As a contrast to the open container statute shown above, the Arizona law that prohibits drinking in public makes it a crime "for a person to consume spirituous liquor in a public place, thoroughfare or gathering." Exactly what a public place is depends on the particular laws of each state or city, or how local courts have interpreted those laws.
Depending on the particular laws and court rulings, violations of carrying alcohol in public laws may occur when one drinks or possess an open container of alcohol while:
- On a public sidewalk
- Inside a parked car (in a public area)
- On the front steps or in the common hallway of an apartment building.
- On school property
- Outdoors in a residential neighborhood
- In a parking lot
- Inside a business open to the public that is not licensed for consumption of alcohol
Public Drinking Law Exceptions
Certain states lack statewide public drinking laws that would otherwise prohibit drinking alcoholic beverages or possessing opened alcoholic drinks in public. Typically, the states without such laws still allow county and municipal governments to enact ordinances that make public drinking illegal in all districts. If you're visiting an area that may have an open container exception, you can usually learn about the local laws at your hotel or from staff at bars or restaurants where alcoholic drinks are served.
Cities that allow public drinking in almost all areas include New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Indianapolis, while cities that allow public drinking in special entertainment districts include Kansas City, Memphis, and Mobile.
Typically, cities and entertainment districts that allow public drinking have restrictions that prohibit cans, bottles, or glass containers in public. Often, they require a paper or plastic cup, sometimes emblazoned with the name of the establishment where the drink was purchased.
There are other exceptions such as Colorado, which allows people to drink beer with 3.2% alcohol-by-volume (or less) in public areas, but not other types of alcohol.
Some local governments proudly promote their lack of public drinking laws for the purpose of increasing tourism and encouraging visitors to support local businesses by drinking at bars, restaurants, hotels, and in specific districts, such as New Orleans' French Quarter and the Las Vegas Strip. The laws can change frequently, so caution is advisable.
Additionally, cities that lack public drinking laws still enforce other quality-of-life laws, including those that prohibit:
- Public urination
- Public nuisance (violation of noise restrictions)
- Disorderly conduct (unruly or destructive behavior)
- Minors in possession of alcohol
- Public Intoxication
Contesting Public Drinking or Open Container Citations: Your Legal Rights
If you or a loved one has been charged with a violation of a public drinking or open container law, you may be able to raise a defense and fight the charge in court.
It is very important that you contact an attorney experienced in criminal defense or DUI to learn how they may be able to help you or your family. Some of the legal factors that an attorney could assist you with include:
- Whether there is sufficient evidence, given the particular facts of your case, to support a conviction under state law or municipal ordinance;
- Whether the investigating police officer improperly gathered evidence in violation of your constitutional rights;
- Whether your alleged conduct was properly charged as a criminal offense or civil violation; and
- What options may exist for you to avoid a conviction or reduce the penalties of a conviction through a plea bargain or pre-trial diversion program.
Charged with a Drinking Law Violation? Talk to a Defense Attorney Today
If you have been arrested or issued a citation for an alcohol-related crime, you will want legal advice before going to court. An offense may seem minor but that doesn't mean it won't carry stiff penalties. A qualified criminal defense attorney can help answer the questions you have and prepare a smart strategy for your case.