Operating a vehicle under the influence isn’t the only alcohol-related violation with which drivers can be charged in Pennsylvania. It’s vital to understand that you are also breaking the law if you have an open container of alcohol in your vehicle — whether you’re drinking it or not. Critically, a driver may not only be legally responsible for their own open containers, but open container laws also apply to the passengers of motor vehicles.
Pennsylvania’s open container laws are codified under 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3809. Specifically, the statute states that any individual who is an operator or passenger of a motor vehicle may not possess or consume a controlled substance or alcoholic beverage in the vehicle. Any alcoholic beverage being transported must be properly sealed or kept in the trunk of the vehicle to avoid a citation.
However, it’s crucial to note that there are several exceptions to the open container law. The statute does not restrict or prohibit the possession or consumption of alcohol by passengers who are traveling in the back of a bus, taxi, or limousine. In addition, open containers are permitted in campers or RVs — provided they are in the living quarters of the vehicle and the driver does not have access to it.
To understand whether you’re in violation of the statute, it’s essential to know what Pennsylvania law defines as an open container. Typically, an open container is one that has been opened or has a broken seal, regardless of whether its contents have been consumed. An open container may also be defined as one without a lid or one from which the contents can be immediately consumed.
In other words, a bottle of wine that was purchased from the store and was not opened can be transported without violating the law. In contrast, a bottle of wine you are bringing home that was opened at a restaurant should be locked in the vehicle’s trunk to avoid a violation.
Any driver who violates the Pennsylvania open container law commits a summary offense. Penalties may also be increased, based on the circumstances surrounding the offense and whether you have prior criminal history. If you operated the vehicle with an open container with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of .08 or higher, you can also be charged with a DUI. More severe charges can be imposed if you were found to be driving while legally intoxicated with an open container within your reach.
Notably, those who hold commercial driver licenses can face even more serious legal repercussions, including license suspension and loss of employment if they are found to be in violation of the open container law. The Commonwealth also has a zero-tolerance policy for school bus drivers who violate the law. School bus drivers who are found guilty of driving with an open container can lose their jobs immediately, as well as face fines, license suspension, and possible time in jail.
Even if you have been arrested for an open container charge, it doesn’t mean you will be convicted — there are several possible defenses you may be able to argue. Significantly, it’s not a defense to show that a person charged with an open container law violation is legally permitted to use alcohol. To defend against these charges, you must be able to prove that you either did not possess the open container or violate the statute.
An open container charge might also be dismissed if you can establish that you possessed an open container in an area where it was permissible, such as in the back of a limousine. You may also have a viable defense if you were a passenger in a vehicle with an open container but you can prove that you were unaware it existed and did not exercise control over it. Depending on the facts and circumstances of the case, you might also be able to challenge the police report or assert a violation of your Constitutional rights.
It is up to the prosecution to prove their case against you beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, evidence needs to be properly preserved in accordance with the law to raise it in court. While law enforcement does not need a warrant to search the vehicle if they had probable cause that there was an open container, certain legal procedures must be followed to avoid Constitutional violations. If the chain of custody of the evidence was broken or the police failed to adhere to proper protocol, a court might be required to drop the charges.
An open container charge is one that should not be taken lightly. It’s important to have a skilled criminal defense attorney by your side who can protect your rights and fight to have the charges against you reduced or dropped. Located in Exeter, Pennsylvania, The Kulick Law Firm is committed to helping clients who face open container and DUI charges obtain the best possible outcome. Call (570) 203-2756 to schedule a consultation.