You may not realize that states, including Virginia, have been incentivized since 1998 to enact open container laws. States that do not enact open container laws lose a portion of their federal highway construction funding.

What Are Open Container Laws?

Open container laws dictate where people can drink alcohol in public. Each statue defines what is meant by “public” and is also subject to interpretation by the courts in the jurisdiction.

Open container laws are different in every state and are also potentially different in different cities within that state. Therefore, it’s important to understand what the laws are not only in your state but in your city and any other states/cities where you may be traveling.

VA Law

Virginia’s open container statute is § 18.2-323.1. There are three parts to the law — drinking while driving a motor vehicle; possessing an open container while driving; and an explanation of penalties.

  • Drinking an alcoholic beverage while operating a motor vehicle on a public highway in the Commonwealth of Virginia is illegal.
  • There is a rebuttable presumption that if there is an open container located within the passenger area of the vehicle, the driver has consumed alcohol while driving.
  • Violations of the open container laws are considered a Class 4 misdemeanor.

Most other states do not allow passengers to drink in a motor vehicle, so if you’re partying while on the road to nearby states such as West Virginia or Washington DC, or Maryland, you should become familiar with those laws as well.

Relevant Definitions

An open container refers to any vessel containing an alcoholic beverage, exclusive of the sealed, original manufacturer’s container.

The passenger area refers to the area intended to seat the driver, any area within reach of the driver (which includes unlocked glove compartments), and the area designed to seat passengers. It does not refer to the trunk, the area behind the last upright seat of a station wagon, passenger van, sport utility vehicle, hatchback, the living area of a motor home, or the passenger areas of vehicles used or maintained for transportation for compensation (taxis, buses, limousines, etc.).

Open container laws are handled by criminal law attorneys. You may want to consult an attorney if you have been arrested for an open container violation.