North Carolina’s Open Container Laws

North Carolina’s open container laws prohibit transporting an open container of alcohol in the passenger area of a vehicle.

In North Carolina, it’s illegal for any person to transport an open container of any alcoholic beverage in the passenger area of a vehicle. This law applies whenever a vehicle is parked or being driven on a public roadway. Additionally, North Carolina’s open container law applies to both drivers and passengers of the vehicle.

Open container. Under North Carolina law, a container of alcohol is considered “open” if the seal is broken. (Unopened containers may be freely transported in the passenger area of the vehicle.)

Passenger area. The “passenger area” of the vehicle encompasses the area where the driver and passengers could be seated and any area within the reach of a person seated in the vehicle—including the glove compartment. So, any open containers of alcohol must be kept in an inaccessible area such as the trunk. In a vehicle like a hatchback or SUV that doesn’t have a trunk, open containers can lawfully be transported behind the back seats.

Types of alcohol included. Transporting open containers of the following types of alcohol are illegal:

  • malt beverages

  • fortified and unfortified wine

  • spirituous liquor (hard alcohols such as vodka and tequila), and

  • mixed beverages.

Exceptions. There are a few exceptions to North Carolina’s open container restriction. Open containers are allowed in:

  • passenger areas of vehicles-for-hire (such as buses or taxis), and

  • the living quarters of motor homes and “house cars.”

(N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 20-138.7 (2017).)

Penalties

An open container violation can be an infraction or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances.

Open container infractions. Possession of an open container by a driver or passenger is an infraction (except for drivers who are consuming alcohol or have alcohol in their system, see below). Infractions are non-criminal violations, meaning that the offender cannot be arrested, and the maximum fine is $100 plus costs.

Open container misdemeanor. Drivers who are consuming alcohol or have alcohol in their system while transporting an open container can be charged with a misdemeanor. The offense is a Class 3 misdemeanor for first-time offenders. A second or subsequent offense is a Class 2 misdemeanor.

Drivers charged with a class 3 misdemeanor face up to 20 days in jail, and drivers charged with a class 2 misdemeanor face up to 60 days in jail. However, it’s more common that the offender will receive a fine and probation if they are convicted of this charge.

Drivers charged with a misdemeanor open container offense are also subject to North Carolina’s implied consent laws. Generally, implied consent requires motorists to submit to a breath or blood test to determine if they have any alcohol in their system. Drivers who refuse testing or test with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) .08% or higher face license revocation.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 20-138.7 (2017).)

Administrative Consequences

In North Carolina, an open container conviction is considered a moving violation, so the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles will assess points against the driver’s license. Additionally, a misdemeanor open container violation conviction can result in license revocation: For a first conviction revocation is just a possibility, but a six-month license revocation is mandatory on a second conviction. And third or subsequent convictions result in a one-year revocation.

Getting Legal Help

The consequences of transporting an open container of alcohol can be serious. If you’ve been arrested or charged for transporting an open container, you should talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney right away. A criminal defense attorney in your area can help you understand how the law applies to the facts of your case and advise you on what to do next.

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