How Open-Container Laws Work Across the U.S.


CARS.COM — A couple of weeks ago, there was a gathering of the Wongs for a big, extended family vacation — imagine 20 of us crammed into a cabin for a long weekend. My cousin’s husband decided that the only way he was going to make it through was with a little help: a bottle of whiskey.

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How was the trip? It was great, it flew by without incident, nobody yelled at anyone and everyone had fun. I know this because only half of the bottle was finished, which presented a problem when we were leaving and wanted to take it home.

My parents own a hatchback, which means that it has no closed trunk, just a cargo cover. And they refused to let us put the open bottle in the cargo area, saying it would be a violation of California’s open-container laws. This conundrum, along with our proximity to the Fourth of July (which happens to be one of the biggest drunk-driving days of the year) got me thinking — what do the open-container laws actually say?

These laws are set by state, so there is some variance depending on which state you’re in. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 40 states and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit drinking from, or even possessing, open containers of alcohol in the passenger area of a motor vehicle.

The 10 states that are exceptions to this rule each have varying laws. For example, in Arkansas and West Virginia, possession of an open container is not prohibited — but consumption is. Seven other states (Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Missouri, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia) prohibit drivers from consuming alcohol while operating a motor vehicle, but the same rules do not extend to passengers. That means that if your buddy in the front seat wants to crack open a cold one, he’s free to do so, but you cannot since you’ve got a wheel in front of you.

And then there’s Mississippi … which has no open-container laws.

In California, the law also states that “If the vehicle is not equipped with a trunk … any bottle, can, or other receptacle … [shall be] kept in some other area of the vehicle that is not normally occupied by the driver or passengers.”

That means the half-finished bottle could have made the return trip with us in the back of the Prius instead of my brother and me opting for a nice, early 10 a.m. drink on the way out (since neither of us was driving). While this was the interpretation of the law in California, be sure to check the open-container laws in your state before proceeding.

Photo of Brian Wong
Former L.A. Bureau Chief Brian Wong is a California native with a soft spot for convertibles and free parking. Email Brian Wong

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