How does Tennessee treat “open containers”?

The 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) is a federal law to reduce the amount of in-vehicle alcohol consumption. As a result of TEA-21, over 40 jurisdictions now have open container laws that extend to both drivers and passengers. In those areas, no vehicle occupant can have access to an open bottle, can, flask or other container on which the seal has been broken or any liquid extracted.

Some states – Tennessee included – don’t have laws that comply with the protocols set forth by the TEA-21 on the topic of open containers. Tennessee’s law, found in Tennessee Code Section 55-10-416, is somewhat unique in that it only applies to the vehicle’s driver.

Though the Tennessee law is more liberal than many others are, it does provide that:

  • A driver cannot drink alcoholic beverages or possess an open container while the vehicle is in operation. Importantly, the statute specifically decrees that a vehicle is “in operation” any time the engine is running.
  • Any open containers of alcohol in the vehicle must be in the possession of passengers or in a closed glove compartment, trunk or non-passenger area (the bed of a truck or the sleeping area of an RV). A can of beer in a shared front cup holder, for example, could be attributed to the driver.

However, counties, cities, or other municipalities may have their own resolutions which prohibit passengers from consuming or possession an alcoholic beverage or beer when the vehicle is in operation.

Possible consequences

An open container violation is a Class C misdemeanor in Tennessee. Generally, this means that it is a citable offense. A driver accused of having an open container could be held, however, if he or she refuses to accept and sign the ticket.

Open container violations, in and of themselves, are not necessarily the most serious of issues. But an officer could use a suspected open container offense as probable cause to perform field sobriety testing, search for drugs or run the background of the driver and passengers. This could lead to one or more of them facing further, much more serious criminal charges.

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