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Can Passengers Drink Alcohol in a Car?

Anyone with a driver's license knows it's dangerous and illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol or other impairing drugs. However, a different question arises about restricting passengers who want to drink alcohol in a car. Most states prohibit drinking alcohol in vehicles, but exceptions in the law might apply.

Can a Passenger Drink Alcohol in a Car?

The answer will depend on your state and the circumstances of your interaction with law enforcement. As a passenger, it is unlikely you will face a charge of driving under the influence (DUI). Still, a police officer can cite you for another infraction, such as an open alcohol container charge, public intoxication, or other traffic violations. If you are underage, you can face additional consequences and misdemeanor charges.

Open Container Laws

Most states have laws prohibiting the presence of alcoholic beverages in open cans, bottles, or other containers with broken seals on sidewalks, on streets, and inside vehicles. In 1998, the federal government enacted the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). A section of the TEA-21 provides for open container laws and other traffic safety measures that must meet specific standards before a state can receive special funds. Most states have open container laws that conform to federal standards outlined in the TEA-21.

A TEA-21 open container law should:

  • Prohibit the possession of an open alcoholic container in the passenger area of the vehicle
  • Prohibit the consumption of alcohol within a motor vehicle
  • Apply to any alcoholic beverage
  • Cover all occupants of the motor vehicle
  • Apply to all public roads and highways
  • Provide for enforcement of the law

By 2019, 39 states and the District of Columbia had passed open container laws that follow TEA-21 requirements. The remaining states have some form of open container laws that apply to a driver and not passengers. Some states' laws allow unsealed containers of alcohol in secure locations only, such as a locked glove compartment or trunk.

Drivers can face a citation for an open container violation if they have the container on their person or within reach. But even if only the passenger has an open container, the driver and the offending passenger may receive a violation. In any case, the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of an offending passenger is irrelevant.


Even in states with open container laws, there are a few exceptions. Generally, you can drink as a passenger on private property. Motorhomes and hired vehicles, like a taxi, are exempt from the law, so long as you are in the living areas or the backseat. But you must still be at least 21 years of age to drink alcohol.

Drinking Passengers Allowed

Several states allow the consumption of alcohol as a vehicle passenger. Even so, local ordinances may prohibit open containers of alcohol. These states are:

  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

Other states, such as Alaska, Louisiana, and Tennessee, have open container laws but do not comply with federal standards.

As long as there are no local ordinances banning open containers in vehicles, passengers in states like Virginia and West Virginia can drink alcohol in a moving vehicle. Mississippi is the most permissive, allowing drivers to drink from an open bottle as long as they remain under the legal BAC limit.

Some municipalities, such as the French Quarter in New Orleans, have carved out exceptions to open container laws to boost tourism. Most ordinances do not allow open containers in vehicles and are typically limited to streets and sidewalks. The French Quarter, infamous for its drive-thru frozen cocktail vendors, will enable drivers and passengers to have open containers of alcohol in vehicles, as long as the driver is not drinking.

Cannabis and Open Container Laws

The laws around marijuana or cannabis are changing. In response, some states have revised their open container regulations to include cannabis possession and use while driving. Most of these states, like Colorado and California, have defined an open container of cannabis in the same way as an alcohol container. A broken seal on the package can get you a ticket. Other states, such as Mississippi, look to the amount of cannabis in the passenger area.

Facing an Open Container or Similar Charge? Speak to an Attorney

If you are facing criminal charges for driving under the influence for just sipping a drink while riding in a car, you should speak with a local DUI defense attorney. Impaired driving cases present unique issues. A knowledgeable DUI lawyer or criminal defense attorney can provide legal advice and help you get the best possible outcome.

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