Violation of driving under the influence (DUI) and open container laws may result in charges for offenders, but the unique factors of each case determine the type and degree of charges an individual may face. Under Florida law, an open container of alcohol discovered inside a vehicle by law enforcement means, “any container of alcoholic beverage which is immediately capable of being consumed from, or the seal of which has been broken.”
The open container provision leaves plenty of room for interpretation. What constitutes “immediately capable of being consumed”? What if a seal was broken but the container is physically inaccessible to a driver, such as behind a rear passenger seat? The law grants discretion to law enforcement, prosecutors, and the court to answer these questions. Sound weird? Keep reading…
Recycle Versus Stash
More people are recycling than ever before, and maybe you are one of them. Perhaps you regularly return bottles, cans, and/or plastic containers for recycling or reuse. Unless you have a truck or large enclosed trunk, some of those recyclables may end up inside your vehicle during transit.
If you pulled over during a routine recycling run, the contents of your car may interest law enforcement. While sacks of various empty containers and obvious recyclables may not raise a red flag, what if an empty beer can rolled under the driver’s seat without your knowledge? Have you violated Florida law?
That’s a Stretch
In some scenarios, such as the one described above, an open container may get into a car entirely innocently. The fact is the circumstances of a stop (time of day, day of the week), the demographics of the driver (age, gender, race, socioeconomic status), and the discretion of the individual law enforcement officer, rightly or wrongly, may all help determine the outcome of a potential violation of the open container law.
A wayward can or bottle, forgotten after a recycling trip, is no doubt more interesting to the police if the car it is found in has several teenagers on a late Saturday night versus an older couple on a Tuesday morning. It may not matter if the same hypothetical origin for the containers applied to both cases, the results could be different. Unfortunately for the drivers in either case, the officer at the scene has virtually unlimited discretion, even if the driver had no knowledge of the container, and even if the container is empty.
The Other End of the Spectrum
Perhaps you buy and consume craft beer, or prefer bottled beer generally. These alcoholic beverages are sealed by caps. What if you put a beer cap in your pocket, or in a bag, and it later falls out in your car? Could that be a violation of the law? A cap is obviously not a container, but law enforcement may view a cap, especially in concert with other factors (such as the stop is made near a stadium after a game, it’s a Friday night and the stop is near many restaurants and bars, etc.), as evidence to suspect and further investigate a possible violation of the law.
Is That Really the Law?
The cap example may be just one of many. What about a wine cork saved from a celebratory dinner? A collectible beer label that a driver purchased on eBay? If an officer sees any evidence of alcohol in a car, be it a beer cap, cork, or label, they may have probable cause to search the entire vehicle for additional evidence of alcohol and open containers. Furthermore, regardless of whether a search actually reveals any additional evidence, the officer still has discretion under the law and may interpret the evidence, no matter how limited, as “… the seal of which has been broken.”
Variations in Punishment—from Adults to Minors
Drivers determined to have violated the state’s open container laws are guilty of a noncriminal moving traffic violation, and offending passengers are guilty of a nonmoving traffic violation. The penalties of each vary depending on the circumstances, but traffic violations generally involve a fine and no risk of any time in jail. Individuals cited for noncriminal traffic infractions must either appear before a court or, within 30 days from the date of their citation, pay all applicable civil penalties and/or delinquent fees. Offenders who can not afford to pay the entire fine immediately may enter into a court-approved payment plan. If an offender chooses to pay the fine rather than appear in court, he or she is assumed to have committed the violation and waives any right to dispute the charge in the future.
Furthermore, the state’s open container law permits local municipalities to promulgate stricter regulations. For example, Fort Lauderdale has enacted rules prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages in public spaces, particularly on the city’s beaches; this law includes a prohibition on possessing open containers while in a vehicle parked in any public space. An offender’s first violation of the city’s open container rules results in a fine not to exceed $50; however, a second violation can result in a fine of up to $500 and 30 days in jail.
If the offender is a minor, the court may impose additional penalties, including reprimanding the minor and/or the minor’s parents, requiring participation in community service, imposing a curfew for up to six months, and requiring that the minor enroll in a youthful driver monitoring service. If the minor fails to comply with the conditions imposed by the court, a judge can impose additional, more severe penalties.
Revelation and Resolution
The examples raised here show how room for officer discretion and interpretation of the law may impact drivers. If you have had an interaction with law enforcement that resulted in a citation or charge for an open container violation, even if the facts were not exactly like those described above, a defense lawyer may still be able to help.
If you have an open container violation, speak to an experienced lawyer as soon as possible. Contact Meldon Law at 800-373-8000 or online to schedule a free consultation and learn more.
Founder of the Meldon Law FirmEmail Jeffrey Meldon