An 'open container' is defined as any beverage containing one-half percent or more of alcohol which has been opened, had the seal broken or the contents partially removed. It is illegal to have an open container in any vehicle on a public highway or shoulder of the highway, however, only the passenger in possession of the container will be charged. A sober driver will not be held accountable for the actions of a passenger in possession of an open container in their vehicle. However, if there are no passengers in the vehicle but an open container is present, the driver may be charged. Although both consumption and possession are illegal, it is relevant whether the contents of the open container were being consumed. In other words, if your friend carries an open bottle in their lap without drinking it, they may still be charged if you are pulled over.
If you are found with an open container in your vehicle while sober, a conviction on this charge will add 2 points to your Georgia driver's license. Accumulating more than 15 points on your license in a 2-year span will result in a one-year license suspension. You will also face a fine of up to $200. If a passenger has an open container, they are only subject to the maximum $200 fine. They will not receive any points on their record. If an open container charge is compounded with a DUI charge, the penalties could be steeper. If open containers or even empty bottles have been left in your vehicle by you or friends, it is advisable to dispose of them hastily.
The presence of an open container can often be the first clue to law enforcement that the driver is intoxicated. An open container may contribute to an odor of alcohol in the cabin of the vehicle, which could also breed suspicion. If charged, an open container can also strengthen the state's case against you. An open container can be construed as unequivocal evidence that you had been drinking.
The penalties for having an open container can differ based on the age of the driver. This is obviously meant to deter younger drivers from drinking in the vehicle, as they presumably may be more likely to. A driver under 21 may also face a license suspension of 120 days, with no access to a limited driving permit. If a minor is found in possession of an open container but is not the driver of the vehicle, they may still be charged with Minor in Possession, in addition to the open container charge.
The open container law affords a few exceptions. It does not apply to "any passenger in the passenger area of a motor vehicle designed, maintained, or used primarily for the transportation of persons for compensation or in the living quarters of a motor home or house trailer.” This exempts party buses, taxi cabs, limousines, motor homes and trailers from the statute prohibiting open containers. The law also makes an exception for partially consumed bottles of wine purchased at a restaurant, so long as the restaurant is licensed to sell alcohol. There are lengthy provisions surrounding this exemption. The wine bottle must be accompanied by a dated receipt for the meal and the wine, adding "If transported in a motor vehicle, the container with the resealed bottle of wine shall be placed in a locked glove compartment, a locked trunk, or the area behind the last upright seat of a motor vehicle that is not equipped with a trunk.”
Georgia's open container law was passed in accordance with the federal requirements of the TEA-21 Act(Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century). If a state complies with these requirements, laid down by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they become eligible for certain federal funds. The aim of these provisions is to reduce crashes and enhance road safety. In compliance with Section 154 of TEA-21, the law must prohibit the possession and consumption of any alcoholic beverage, beer and otherwise, in the passenger area of the vehicle. This includes the unlocked glove compartment in the passenger area. Again, the passengers of a commercial transportation vehicle are exempted.
The law has been subject to some tinkering by Georgia lawmakers. At one point, a “trashman amendment” to the law was discussed, to protect those who collected cans and the like from the sanctions of the law. The NHTSA warned that the amendment was apt to be misused and misapplied, and would ultimately undermine the function of the law. In 2001, Georgia stood to lose $84 million in funding if it did not comply with the provisions of TEA-21. Under pressure from the federal government to crack down on drunk driving and highway safety, the state scrapped the trashman amendment and passed legislation that satisfied requirements.
The State of Georgia prohibits the consumption or possession of open alcoholic beverages in the passenger area of any vehicle while on a public highway or shoulder of a public highway. Only a person who consumes an alcoholic beverage or possesses an open alcoholic beverage container in violation of this Code section shall be charged with such offense; provided, however, that an operator of a motor vehicle who is alone in the passenger area of such motor vehicle shall be deemed to be in possession of any open alcoholic beverage container in such passenger area. O.C.G.A. § 40-6-253.
If you have been charged with open container while sober or charged with open container in combination with a DUI in Georgia, you should take your case seriously. Contact skilled Hall County DUI Attorney Richard Lawson today. His office is available 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.