Impaired driving due to alcohol use has been a problem in the United States for years. Because so many injuries and fatalities occur due to people driving while intoxicated, the federal government has laws on the books that assign harsh penalties for the crime. However, these laws do not apply to open containers of alcohol in motor vehicles. In fact, there is no federal open container law at all. Open container laws exist only at state and local levels. The state of Texas has its own open container law; but many people are completely unaware of how this law can affect both vehicle drivers AND their passengers.

The state of Texas provides funding to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to improve and/or increase various traffic safety measures each year. Texas spent close to $3 billion on driver behavior education and enforcement campaigns, of which about $50 million was earmarked for impaired driving safety campaigns over a five-year span, according to the most recent public data available from the Texas Traffic Safety Task Force Report (2016). But even with that huge budget, TxDOT has not addressed the issue of open container laws in Texas. 

Open container laws originally were meant to serve as a legal tool to deter public drunkenness and lower alcohol-related crimes; in Texas, these laws are strict. Section 49.031 of the Texas Penal Code defines an open container as “a bottle, can, or other receptacle that contains any amount of alcoholic beverage that is open, that has been opened, that has a broken seal, or the contents of which are partially removed,” and states that such a container cannot be located anywhere within the “passenger area of a motor vehicle,” regardless of whether the vehicle is in motion, at a stop, or parked. The law further clarifies “passenger area” to be all of the space within a vehicle except three specific areas: a locked glove compartment, a trunk, or “the area behind the last upright seat of the vehicle.” (For the record, there is an exception to this law: any passenger in a vehicle “used primarily for the transportation of persons for compensation,” such as a taxi or limousine, is exempt.)

As far as penalties are concerned, open container violations are designated as Class C misdemeanors in the state of Texas. The circumstances of the stop determine whether one is placed under arrest or just released with a citation and court summons. And if one is convicted in court, he or she will incur a fine up to $500, but no jail time. (Note that being charged with driving under the influence and/or driving while intoxicated while in possession of an open container can increase these penalties significantly.) Drinking can be problematic for Texas drivers, but also for any passenger who takes “one for the road.”

If you or someone you know has been charged under Texas open container laws, contact Jarvis, Garcia, & Erskine Law today for experienced representation by trusted Austin criminal defense attorneys. Visit the law firm’s website, or call 512-359-3030 to speak to a member of the team about your next step.