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DWI and Open Containers

In Texas, the rules regarding open containers of alcohol in vehicles can lead to unexpected legal challenges for drivers and passengers alike.  With over 20 years of experience, the Westbrook Law Firm, PLLC emphasizes the importance of understanding these regulations to avoid potential legal issues.

What is the Open Container Law in Texas?

Texas law is clear.  Having an open container of alcohol in your vehicle is illegal, regardless of whether the driver is sober.  The open container law, found in Texas Penal Code § 49.031, defines an open container as any bottle, can, or other receptacles that contain alcoholic beverages, which have been opened, had their seal broken, or had any of their contents removed.

This law applies to the seating area of a vehicle, including the passenger area, regardless of whether the vehicle is moving or parked on a public highway.  The definition of a public highway encompasses:

  • Roads
  • Streets
  • Interstates
  • Any publicly maintained roadway

Is it Illegal to Have an Open Container in a Parked Car?

Yes, the same regulations apply whether the vehicle is being driven or is parked on a public highway.  This broad definition includes virtually all areas accessible to vehicles. Use caution when consuming alcohol near or in a vehicle.

Many DWI cases include allegations of open container violations.  This additional offense can complicate the more serious DWI charge, leading to tougher prosecution and punishment.  It’s important to review the evidence and fully investigate your case when an open container is involved — it could mean the difference in a dismissal or conviction.

Can I Transport a Previously Opened Bottle?

Transporting an open container in the passenger area of a vehicle is against the law.  However, Texas law permits the transportation of opened bottles in the vehicle’s trunk or, if the vehicle lacks a trunk, in a locked glove compartment or behind the last upright seat.

Legal Transportation of Alcohol and To-Go Orders

Following the legalization of to-go alcohol sales with House Bill 1024 in May 2021, Texas residents can legally transport alcohol with their carry-out meals if the beverage is in a sealed container. Breaking this seal before reaching your destination can result in an open container violation.

Can a Passenger Drink Alcohol in the Vehicle?

It is illegal for anyone in the passenger area of a vehicle to have an open container of alcohol.  However, exceptions exist for passengers in vehicles designed to transport people for compensation (e.g., limousines, buses) and the living areas of motorhomes.

Consequences of an Open Container Violation

An open container violation is considered a Class C Misdemeanor, carrying a fine of up to $500. While this charge does not lead to jail time on its own, it can complicate matters if combined with other charges, such as a DWI, potentially escalating to a Class B Misdemeanor.

Defending Against Open Container Violations

Here are some insights into potential defenses and strategies that a skilled Houston DWI defense attorney at Westbrook Law Firm, PLLC, can use in your case:

Challenging the Legality of the Traffic Stop

One of the foundational defenses against an open container violation begins with scrutinizing the circumstances surrounding the initial traffic stop.  The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. Law enforcement must have a valid reason, or probable cause, to stop your vehicle.

If we can demonstrate that the stop was unjustified or lacked probable cause, any evidence gathered during the stop, including the discovery of an open container, could be inadmissible in court.

Identifying Errors in Police Protocol

Even after a lawful stop, the procedure followed by law enforcement officers is subject to guidelines. Any deviation from established protocols during the stop, search, or citation process can be grounds for challenging the charges.

This might include:

  • Failure to properly inform you of your rights
  • Incorrect handling or documentation of the open container
  • Other procedural errors that could impact the integrity of the evidence against you

Insufficient Evidence

In many cases, the evidence of an open container violation may not be as clear-cut as it seems.  For instance, proving that the container was indeed open or that the driver or passengers were aware of its presence requires specific evidence.

A Houston DWI defense attorney can argue the evidence presented does not meet the legal standard required for a conviction, such as questioning the direct observation of the open container by the officer or the lack of concrete proof that the seal was broken while in the vehicle.

Contesting the Location of the Container

The law specifies that the open container must be in the passenger area of the vehicle to constitute a violation.  If the container was found in an area not easily accessible to the driver or passengers, such as locked in the glove compartment, placed behind the last upright seat (in vehicles without a trunk), or otherwise stored outside the passenger area, this could serve as a defense.

Arguing the Exemption for To-Go Beverages

Given the recent legalization of to-go alcohol sales in sealed containers, there may be confusion or misinterpretation regarding what constitutes an open container.  If you were cited with an open container violation for a legally sealed to-go beverage that had not been tampered with, presenting evidence of the beverage’s sealed condition at the time of the stop could invalidate the charge.

Highlighting Ambiguities or Misidentifications

There may be cases where the substance in the container is misidentified as alcoholic when it is not or where the ownership of the container within the vehicle is unclear.  Demonstrating that the container did not contain alcohol or that it did not belong to you (and you were unaware of its presence) are potential defenses that can be explored.

At Westbrook Law Firm, PLLC, we look at every aspecf of your case. We leverage any applicable defenses to challenge the open container violation.

If you find yourself facing these charges, speak with a knowledgeable Houston DWI defense attorney.

Contact a Houston Defense Attorney Today

If you’re dealing with an open container violation or DWI charge in Houston, Westbrook Law Firm, PLLC, can help.  We have 20 years of experience in Texas DWI laws.

Don’t let an open container violation or DWI charge disrupt your life.  Contact the Westbrook Law Firm, PLLC at 281-888-5581.  Let’s discuss your case and explore your defense options.  Together, we can work towards a favorable resolution.