Drivers are aware of the risks associated with driving while under the influence of alcohol. Penalties are harsh, and a conviction for a first-time OUI can result in prison time, fines up to $5,000, and a suspended driver's license for one year. However, a driver can be penalized for having a half-finished bottle of wine in their car, even if they are completely sober.
Possession of Alcoholic Beverages in a Motor Vehicle
In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the General Laws prohibit open containers of alcohol in the passenger area of a vehicle. "Whoever, upon any way or in any place to which the public has a right of access, or upon any way or in any place to which members of the public have access as invitees or licensees, possesses an open container of alcoholic beverage in the passenger area of any motor vehicle shall be punished by a fine of not less than $100 nor more than $500."
An open container refers to a bottle, can, flask or other receptacle which contains an alcoholic liquid that has been opened, or the seal is broken, or any contents have been partially removed. This could include a half-finished bottle of wine, opened can of beer, or bottle of liquor where the seal has been cracked. It does not matter who drank the alcohol, or how much was consumed, the container itself is the source of the violation.
One exception to the open container law could be a bottle that was resealed according to specific regulations. A restaurant may allow a patron to take home a bottle of wine that wasn't finished, but they must reseal it according to certain standards. This includes re-corking the bottle, placing it in a tamper proof bag, and affixing the restaurant's receipt to the bag.
According to the law, a properly resealed bottle should not be considered an open container. However, the law also prohibits carrying the resealed bottle in the passenger area. So in effect, a resealed bottle is not treated much differently than an open container.
The passenger area of the car refers to anywhere designed to seat the driver and passengers, including any area accessible to the driver or passenger while in a seated position. This includes the glove compartment. Open alcohol under a seat, on the floor, or in the glove box is within the passenger area. The exceptions in a vehicle include a locked glove compartment, or the trunk of the car. In SUVs or Trucks without a trunk, open alcohol must be carried in the area behind the last upright seat, or an area not normally occupied by the driver or passenger.
Vehicles Where Open Containers are Allowed
In some cases, open containers are allowed in vehicles. This includes the living quarters of a house coach or house trailer, and vehicles designed, maintained and used for the transportation of persons for compensation. Passenger riding in the living area of a motor home may be able to have open containers, as long as there are no open containers in the driver's compartment.
Additionally, passengers in limousines, taxi cabs, and livery cabs may be able to have open alcohol containers. However, before you hop into a cab with a bottle of beer, some companies have their own policies which prohibit passengers from drinking in the taxi. The ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft both have policies against open containers for passengers.
Open Container Penalties
For most drivers who are caught with an open container of alcohol in their car, they will receive a ticket, and fined up to $500. However, an open container may lead police to suspect the driver may be operating under the influence of alcohol, which could lead to an OUI arrest.
For drivers under the age of 21, an open container of alcohol in the car may be charged with operation of a motor vehicle containing alcohol. This may lead to an arrest, and includes a fine of up to $50, and a 90 day suspended license.
Open Containers on the Street
Walking down the street with an open container may not seem like a big deal, and sometimes the police may turn a blind eye in times of celebration, but consumption or possession of open containers in public is generally prohibited. However, this is generally covered by city and town provisions, instead of state law. It is most often a ticketable offense to drink any alcoholic beverage in any public area, park, or place which members of the public have access.
Defenses to Open Container Charges
A Boston criminal defense lawyer will be able to investigate your case and develop a legal defense to your charges. There may be defenses available, depending on the facts of your case. This includes challenging the police officer's justification for stopping or searching the car in the first place. If your under-21 son or daughter got arrested for having alcohol in the car, they do not have to plead guilty just because they were arrested.