What are Open Container Laws?

If you’ve been known to tip a cocktail or two, or three, while having a night out on the town, then you may or may not recall being nabbed for drinking in a public space. Perhaps, in your liquor-driven, hazy state of mind you thought the bar you were drinking at wouldn’t mind if you just walked out with your beverage. Or, maybe you and your buddies decided to drink a few road pops while the designated driver took you to the local pub.

Either way, you may have been arrested or fined for violating your state’s Open Container laws. So what exactly does the term “open container” have to do with chugging a few beers without your own roof overhead? Keep that bottle closed while you read on to find out.

What are considered Open Containers?

For some reason, lawmakers decided to go the ambiguous route while drafting regulations pertaining to drinking in public, by describing them as “open container” laws. Do these laws prohibit you from, say, drinking soda in some sort of a cup, bucket, or shoe? As in something that also could be described as an “open container”? No, they do not.

Rather, these regulations typically refer to ingesting some sort of alcoholic beverage in a public place or vehicle, out of some sort of container like a glass, can, or bottle. In theory, such a container must be “open” if a person is to drink the booze that is in it. In other words, you may be able to walk around town with a six-pack of beer, just as long as those cans stay closed. If those cans are filled with non-alcoholic beer, however, then feel free to open them and drink away.

What is TEA-21?

In the United States, any open container law falls under the jurisdiction of the local state government; however, the federal government still has plenty of say in whether you’re allowed to shotgun a beer while your bro drives you to the game.

How does the U.S. government influence drinking habits in your state? Through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century–that’s how. The act provides federal funding to states to maintain and build new roadways, and contains various guidelines in regards to open container laws. The states must follow these guidelines in order to receive full funding. In other words, if your state has decided that having a cocktail or two at the beach isn’t really a big deal, then chances are it isn’t cashing as big of a check from TEA-21.

What is considered to be Drinking in Public?

Most open container laws apply to drinking in public, which, contrary to what one may think–or hope–doesn’t mean other people have to be around in order for it to apply. Just because you’re the only person walking around downtown at 5:00 a.m. doesn’t mean it’s okay to down a bottle of red wine while you’re doing so. It also doesn’t mean you and your friends can share a keg of beer at a playground outside of town, once the kids have all gone home.

Of course, open container laws are designed to reduce public intoxication, by restricting the consumption of alcohol to establishments where, in theory, there are trained staff members to cut people off if needed. As anyone that has been out on a busy weekend night understands, drunken people are much more likely to make poor decisions, especially when there are hundreds of other loaded people around them.

Some critics argue that open container laws are more about making sure that local establishments stay busy with people looking to mingle and spend cash on drinks. Others argue that, just because some insecure meatheads decide to pick fights and bother women when they’re wasted in public, shouldn’t mean that everyone else can’t enjoy a fine Merlot during their nightly stroll.

If you want to get absolutely blotted in your own home, however, then feel free. Just don’t bother anyone else by firing your handgun into the ceiling because you get mad at the paint.

What about Boozing in Vehicles?

Of course, the other key reason open container laws exist is to prevent morons from drinking and driving. While it may have been quaint to down a beer or two when you were behind the wheel several decades ago, today most people understand that drinking and driving is just flat out deadly.

Where the debate gets a little hazier is in regard to a vehicle’s passengers. Most open container laws also apply to everyone in the vehicle, due to the fact that drunken passengers can be just a wee bit distracting for the driver. In addition, if the passengers are allowed to have an open can of beer, or two, then police could have a more difficult time determining if the driver is also drinking.

Are there any states that allow me to drink in public?

While the vast majority of states have strict open container laws in place, there are a few exceptions. For example, in states like Mississippi, Missouri, and West Virginia, there are no statewide open container laws. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can proudly take a swig from your flask and say “cheers” just as the police drives by your car on the freeway.

While some of these states allow for passengers to drink in vehicles, only Mississippi allows for a driver to carry an open container of alcohol, and they must keep their blood alcohol level within the legal limits.

Then, of course, there are various entertainment districts around the U.S. that allow people to walk around with alcoholic beverages, as long as they’re in plastic containers. Some of these include the Strip in Las Vegas and the city of New Orleans, which you may have heard, have both been known to host a party or two.