Everyone with a driver's license should know that motorists are not permitted to drive while under the influence of alcohol or other impairing drugs. However, a different question arises with regard to restrictions on a passenger who wants to drink alcohol in a car. In most states, drinking alcohol in cars is prohibited, but exceptions in the law might apply.
Open Container Laws
Most states have laws prohibiting the presence of open cans, bottles, or other unsealed containers of alcoholic beverages (even if empty) on sidewalks, streets, and inside vehicles. It stands to reason that any passenger drinking an alcoholic beverage also is in possession of an open container. Some states' laws allow unsealed containers of alcohol in secure locations only, such as a locked glove compartment or trunk.
A vast majority of states have open container laws in place, most of which conform to federal standards outlined in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which mandates open container laws and other traffic safety measures.
Drivers may be cited for an open container violation if they have the container on their person or within reach. But even if only the passenger is in possession of an open container, both the driver and the offending passenger typically may be cited for a violation. In any case, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of an offending passenger is irrelevant.
A few states currently do not have open container laws, including Missouri, Mississippi, and Connecticut, even if local ordinances in some of those states do in fact prohibit open containers of alcohol. Other states have open container laws (like Alaska, Louisiana, and Tennessee) that do not fully comply with federal TEA-21 standards.
But can a passenger drink alcohol in an automobile in the absence of laws banning open containers?
The short answer is yes. As long as there are no local ordinances banning open containers in vehicles, passengers in states like Virginia and West Virginia can in fact drink alcohol in a moving vehicle. Mississippi is the most permissive, even allowing drivers to drink as long as they remain under the legal BAC limit.
Some municipalities have carved out exceptions to open container laws in an effort to boost tourism, such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, but the majority of such ordinances do not allow open containers in vehicles (typically limited to streets and sidewalks). The French Quarter, infamous for its drive-through frozen cocktail vendors, allows both drivers and passengers to have open containers of alcohol in vehicles, as long as the driver is not drinking.
For more information, learn more from our "Open Container Law" article or refer to FindLaw's DUI Law center.
Learn whether Car Passengers Can Drink Alcohol in Your State by Speaking to a Lawyer
If you are arrested or charged with a crime for driving under the influence or for just sipping a drink while riding shotgun, you should speak with a local DUI attorney. Impaired driving cases present unique issues and require a knowledgeable attorney who can help devise a legal strategy and help you get the best possible outcome.