Being arrested for drunk driving is something that many people have experienced. And for anyone who really has been drinking, the police have a good reason to want them safely off the road. But there’s nothing more frustrating than being charged with a drunk-driving related crime when you are sober as a judge.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what can happen if you are ticketed and/or arrested based on the Minnesota open bottle law.
What is the Open Bottle Law?
The open bottle law (or open-container law in other states) was essentially designed to make sure drivers aren’t drinking while actively behind the wheel. But it’s been expanded to a sometimes exploitative scope.
By the book, the open bottle law prohibits any unsealed containers of alcohol to be anywhere that -might- be accessible to the driver. This includes drinks in the hands of passengers, in the backseat, and rattling around forgotten under the seats. It also includes drinks that have been cracked but are currently screwed shut or firmly corked. Resealed, even resealed and wrapped in saran, are still considered open.
Qualifying Alcoholic Beverages
The open bottle law applies to all alcoholic beverages. Often including unusual things like cooking wine. And this may sounds crazy unless you’ve known (or been) an alcoholic in the throes of addiction. However, it is not clear if liquor candies and other alcoholic non-liquids qualify. Here’s what you can be sure will get you an open container violation:
- Wine and Beer
- Spirits and Liquor
- 3.2 Percent Malt Liquor / 3.2 Beer
All Vehicles on Public Roads
Fortunately for recreators who want to drink in their cars by lakes and on private property, the open bottle law only applies on -public- roads. Farm-to-Market roads do count, but private roads do not. No matter how long they are, or if they cross other properties.
Unlike many other vehicular laws, the open bottle law applies to all vehicles on public roads. Not just cars and trucks. Jeeps, scooters, motorcycles, and golf carts are all included. IF you are driving on a public road. This is usually also extended to include driving on the shoulder or on the stretch of grass on the side of the road. Though that may be open to interpretation.
You also do not have to be in motion, merely located on public road. This means that open containers in a parked car are also a violation.
Interestingly, motorboats do not count. A boat on the water is permitted to have drinking passengers. If passengers are lawfully riding in a towed fifth wheel (boat, camper, etc) the alcohol is assumed to be out of reach of the driver and therefore not an open bottle violation.
Open Bottle Constructive vs Actual Possession
That said, there is a difference between an open bottle in personal or possession of the driver versus open bottles anywhere else in the vehicle. This is noted as actual possession versus constructive possession.
The vast majority of the time, open bottle charges are considered ‘constructive possession’. This is a not-so-funny legal turn of phrase that means the police officer ‘constructed’ your connection to the open bottle. Alcohol in the hands of passengers, back seat, or under the seats would be considered constructive possession. The driver does not even need to know the alcohol was there to be legally charged with constructive possession. As long as they could have theoretically reached it without exiting the car.
When the driver is -actually- the one holding or using the alcohol, this is known as ‘actual possession’. Actual possession can be charged if the bottle is on your person or anywhere reasonably close to you. Including the cup holder between the driver and passenger. This means whether the alcohol is in your breast pocket, propped between your legs, in your hand, or even being sipped and put down by your front seat passenger, you will be given the harsher charge of actual possession. Under the assumption that you have -in fact- been drinking and driving. Even if your BAC is not detectable.
Strict Liability of Owners and Drivers
Why can the police get away with charging you for your passenger’s drinks? This is because of the strict liability clause. Whoever owns or is driving the car is absolutely responsible for any open containers in the vehicle. Even if you don’t know about them. Even if passengers crack their once-sealed containers behind your back with loud music playing. Even if you didn’t know one of your sealed containers was not actually sealed.
Where In the Car Can’t You Have Open Bottles?
So at this point, you may be wondering how the heck you’re supposed to transport that half a bottle of wine coming home from a dinner party.
The rule about open container is that if it’s in the passenger compartment (front and back seat, including all pouches and consoles) then it’s illegal. In theory, this is because drinking drivers might stash their bottles, reach for one, or be passed a drink while on the road. But the law has been used to punish perfectly sober and responsible drivers as well.
Here are all the places a bottle might be that could result in a criminal charge:
- On your person
- In hands or on persons of your passengers
- Glove compartments and dash/center consoles
- In the passenger seat or footwell
- In the backseat
- Under and between the seats
- Behind the fold-down center-back seat console (do check)
- Any other nooks and crannies in the passenger compartment
Consequences of an Open Bottle Conviction
If you are convicted of an open bottle violation, you will be facing misdemeanor-level consequences. And before you shrug this off, let us warn you. Misdemeanors can come with up to 3 months (90 days) behind bars and up to $1,000 in fines paid to the court. And how much time/fines you are faced with will depend on the case built by the police and the whims of the court. Yes, even if you were completely sober or doing your drunk friends a favor as their designated driver.
The Importance of Legal Counsel in an Open Bottle Case
Open bottle cases can be so minimal as to be forgotten or they can completely wreck your life by putting you away long enough to ruin relationships and lose jobs. The best way to minimize the damage of an open-bottle charge is to work with an experienced Minnesota defense attorney. They will know how to best represent your situation to show that you were not being willfully irresponsible, didn’t know about the alcohol, or even tried to put a stop to it. The court looks more kindly on people whose situations they understand, even if the police officer was not so considerate. And your lawyer will make sure that your story is heard in the best possible light, not just what’s written in the police report.
For more information about the Minnesota open bottle law or to consult on the details of your case, contact us today! Our legal team is ready to help.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Please contact attorney Kirk Anderson for an initial consultation.