Having an open container of alcohol in your vehicle is a crime in many states, but Massachusetts is no longer one of them. As of February 21, 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that an open alcohol container is not a crime in the Commonwealth. This does not mean that you can have an open container in your vehicle, however; it is still a civil violation in Massachusetts. It was simply demoted from a crime to a civil infraction.
The 2020 Supreme Court ruling (Commonwealth v. Mansur) found that an open container violation constitutes a civil violation, not a criminal offense. This ruling came after a trial judge held that a defendant who was charged with drunk driving and an open container would still have to stand trial for the open container charge after being found not guilty of operating under the influence.
When the matter went to the Supreme Judicial Court, it reversed the previous judge’s decision – reducing an open container from a crime to a civil violation in Massachusetts. A civil violation (also called an infraction or offense) is not a crime. Someone receiving an infraction will not be convicted of a crime, will not have a permanent criminal record and will not face a sentence such as jail time. Instead, most civil violations only result in fines.
In Massachusetts, being convicted of a motor vehicle criminal offense, such as driving with a suspended license, can come with a sentence that carries the possibility of jail time. The goal of a criminal case for a motor vehicle crime is to punish the driver to prevent him or her from committing the same offense in the future. This can result in a jail sentence, fine and/or other penalties. A civil violation, on the other hand, is a tort or wrongdoing, not a crime.
An open container under Massachusetts law is defined as any receptacle – such as a bottle or a can – that contains an alcoholic beverage and that has been opened, has a broken seal or has been partially consumed. It is a violation of civil law in Massachusetts to have an open container in the passenger area of a motor vehicle that is on a public road, in a public area or in a place to which the public has access.
The passenger area refers to any part of the car that is readily accessible to the driver while in a seated position, including an unlocked glove compartment. It does not, however, refer to a locked glove compartment, the trunk of the car or the area behind the last seat if there is no trunk. There is an exception to the rule if the motor vehicle is designed for transporting multiple passengers or has a living area. In these cases, it is still a violation if the driver possesses an open container of alcohol, but not if it is in the passenger area.
If a law enforcement officer pulls you over and cites you for having an open container of alcohol in the passenger area of your car, you will receive a ticket and have to pay a fine of $100 to $500. The value of the fine will depend on whether or not this is your first civil offense, whether you have a previous open container or drunk driving conviction on your record, and whether you were driving recklessly at the time of the traffic stop. In addition, if you are under the age of 18, you will have your driver’s license or permit suspended. The suspension will be 180 days for a first offense and 1 year for a subsequent offense.
If you have an open container of alcohol in the passenger area of your car, the police officer conducting the traffic stop may also suspect you of operating under the influence (OUI) of alcohol. This may result in the officer requesting a breathalyzer test or asking you to conduct a field sobriety test. If the officer believes there is probable cause, you may be arrested for an alleged OUI in addition to facing a fine for an open container. In this scenario, it is critical to contact a Middlesex County OUI defense attorney for representation right away.