What are Pennsylvania’s open container laws?

Drunk driving is one offense that can lead to a run-in with the law, but what about having an open container in your vehicle? Most states, including Pennsylvania, have open container laws that prohibit drivers and their passengers from drinking or possessing an open container of alcohol in a vehicle. Although Pennsylvania open container laws (codified at 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3809) are not complex, there are certain aspects of the law that are commonly misconstrued. Let’s look further into Pennsylvania’s open container laws.

Understanding Pennsylvania’s open container laws

It is important to understand Pennsylvania’s open container laws before you plan on transporting any alcohol within the state. Two important things to remember are:

  1. The open container laws apply regardless of whether the vehicle is moving or parked.
  2. An open container does not necessarily have to be consumed in order to be in violation of Pennsylvania open container laws.

Violations of these laws can result in criminal charges filed against you.

What constitutes an open container?

Generally, an open container is defined as an alcoholic beverage that:

  • has been previously opened
  • has a broken seal, or
  • has had some of the contents removed
  • Possessing an open container while driving sober

It is against the law for you to drive your vehicle with an open container present in your vehicle, even if you are not drinking. You may, however, legally transport a sealed alcohol container in the passenger area of your vehicle.

If you purchased a bottle of wine at a restaurant, it is lawful for you to transport the bottle home as long as it has been properly resealed. However, it is not advisable that you do so because it may cause issues if you were to be pulled over by a police officer.

If you would like to transport other previously opened containers, you may transport them in the trunk of your vehicle. The key is they must be well out of reach of the passenger area of the vehicle. If you do not have a trunk, then they can be stored in a secured, locked container.

Possessing an open container while driving drunk

It is illegal to operate a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol in the state of Pennsylvania. If an officer tests your Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) and it is .08 or higher, then you are considered legally drunk, and you may be charged with a DUI. If you are caught driving drunk with an open container at your reach, you may face even more severe charges. Penalties and fines vary and are also based on prior offenses.

Possessing an open container as a passenger

Pennsylvania’s open container laws apply to both drivers and any passengers. Sometimes, passengers don’t realize that they are in violation of any laws, because they think that as long as they aren’t driving the car, that it shouldn’t matter if they drink. That is most definitely not true. As a passenger in violation of the law, you can face hefty fines. Additionally, everyone in the vehicle is subject to being penalized as well.

Possessing an open container as a bus or commercial vehicle driver

If you hold a commercial license and are found to be in violation of Pennsylvania’s open container laws while operating a commercial vehicle, you may face severe repercussions. Not only will you be held liable legally, but your employer may also be held liable for allowing you to drive in violation of the law. You may face license suspension as well as job loss.

Pennsylvania has a zero tolerance policy for school bus drivers in violation of open container laws. If you are found to be in violation of these laws, then you will immediately lose your job along with other penalties such as fines, license suspension, and possible jail time.

Possessing an open container in a vehicle designed for passenger transportation

We’ve talked about many of the violations associated with Pennsylvania’s open container laws, but there are also some exceptions to the law. Although anyone operating a vehicle cannot consume alcohol, a passenger of a bus, taxi, or limousine can legally possess or consume an open container of an alcoholic beverage. The alcohol must be in the back of the vehicle where the driver does not have access to it. Additionally, vehicles like a camper or a recreational vehicle (RV) are legally allowed to have open containers of alcohol as long as it is kept in the living quarters and away from the driver.

Being charged with an open container violation

Although a police officer does not need a warrant to search your vehicle, they must have probable cause to believe that you had an open container in your vehicle. They cannot illegally pull you over and search your vehicle.

Penalties of violating Pennsylvania’s open container law

If you violate Pennsylvania’s open container laws, then you are subject to penalties and fines. Violations are considered a summary offense. A summary offense is a fine of $500 and punishable up to 90 days in jail. You may also face license suspension.

Possible defenses

It is important to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer, who can review the facts and circumstances surrounding your case and point out possible defenses. If the officer conducted an illegal search of the vehicle, then a skilled attorney may be able to have the search and evidence against you deemed inadmissible. If you were a passenger and were completely unaware that there was an open container in the vehicle, then you may have a possible defense. There are several different defenses that may be applicable to you. An experienced attorney is able to negotiate on your behalf and may be able to lessen your penalties.

When you retain an experienced criminal defense attorney from DiCindio Law, you might be able to secure a more favorable disposition to the charges against you. Contact us today to schedule a consultation by calling 610.430.3535 or by submitting your information through our online contact form.