Texans understand that drunk driving isn’t okay. We know it puts other drivers at risk and is easy to avoid. What you may not know is DWI charges don’t always stem from actively drinking.
If you’ve been pulled over in Texas and you have an open container of alcohol in the car, then you might wind up with a DWI charge.
While there are plenty of legitimate reasons why you might be transporting that open container of alcohol, you need to be wise when doing so. Understanding how Texas open container laws work can help you avoid unnecessary DWI charges.
Texas Open Container Laws
In general, Texas laws takes a firm stance on open alcohol containers. Specifically, car occupants are forbidden from having open containers in “the passenger area of a motor vehicle.”
This is everywhere people are supposed to ride, including the back seat. The penalties always apply to the driver, no matter who is drinking (or holding the open container) in the car.
Open Containers: What Counts
Open containers include everything from bottles to cans to cups. Whether any of the alcohol has been removed or not, a broken seal counts.
That can mean a cracked beer can, a wine bottle without a seal, or a liquor bottle with a loose lid. A plastic cup that clearly contained beer recently also counts. The amount of alcohol in the container does not matter, as long as some liquid remains in the cup.
Two Exceptions for Open Containers: Campers and Driving Services
There are only two exceptions to this law. First, vehicles that are designed to be homes or living spaces are exempt, such as motorhomes or campers.
Second, the passenger area of vehicles like limousines or taxis is also exempt. Specifically, the exemption is for vehicles that are designed to transport paying customers. This is how limousines are permitted to have minibars.
Penalties for Possession of Open Containers
Open container violations are crimes on their own. Without aggravating factors, this violation is considered a Class C misdemeanor.
A conviction can result in points off your license, a ticket, and a fine of up to $500. Those penalties are worth avoiding all on their own for simply bringing a previously opened bottle of wine to a party, don’t you think?
An Open Container as an Aggravating Factor
Possessing an open container is not just its own charge. This charge can also aggravate others – especially DWI charges. In fact, having an open alcohol container in your car can give officers the probable cause needed to initiate a DWI accusation, even if you might not have otherwise been suspect.
How Probable Cause Can Result in a Texas DWI
For a police officer to pull over a driver, they must have a reasonable suspicion that some kind of crime is being committed. It doesn’t have to be a sign of drunk driving. A rolling stop or a broken taillight are each cause enough for an officer to make an initial traffic stop.
Once someone is stopped, officers also need probable cause to search your car. If you have an open container visible, that is enough to justify a warrantless search via probable cause.
It is also enough to convince an officer to turn a routine traffic stop into a field sobriety test. In Texas, drivers give implied consent to sobriety tests by driving a vehicle in the first place.
So even if a driver seemed perfectly sober, when there is an open container in the car, an officer is well within his rights to require the driver to take a sobriety test in order to ensure the safety of others on the road.
Suddenly what could have been a mere traffic ticket has turned into a chain reaction ending in a DWI felony charge.
Legal Ways to Stow Opened Alcohol in Your Texas Vehicle
Outside of taxis or motorhomes, open alcohol containers must be secured when present in a vehicle. If they are accessible from the passenger area, they must be in a locked compartment. Merely storing it under a seat or behind the driver is not acceptable.
There are two acceptable places in most cars: the glove compartment and the trunk. The glove compartment must lock, as must the trunk. If there is no enclosed trunk as part of the vehicle, then open containers can be stored in the open area behind the final row of seats.
However, if the alcohol is still visible, an officer automatically has a right to reasonable suspicion and it allows them to search the rest of the vehicle without a warrant.
Open containers are a wide and varied category. It doesn’t matter who in the car has the container; it’s illegal no matter what.
Always be safe and stow your open containers in your trunk before you drive. It’s the simplest way to avoid penalties that might range from a ticket to a DWI conviction.
About the Author:
After getting his Juris Doctor from the University of Houston Law Center, Jeff Hampton began practicing criminal law in Texas in 2005. Before becoming a defense attorney, he worked as a prosecutor for the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office – experience he uses to anticipate and cast doubt on the arguments that will be used against his clients. Over the course of his career, he has helped countless Texans protect their rights and get the best possible outcome in their criminal cases. His skill has earned him recognition from the National Trial Lawyers (Top 100 Trial Lawyers) and Avvo (Top Attorney in Criminal Defense, Top Attorney in DUI & DWI, 10/10 Superb Rating), and he is Lead Counsel rated.