Virginia’s Alcohol Open Container Law and Violation Penalties

Virginia’s open container law and the penalties for drinking alcohol and possessing an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle.

By , Attorney · Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Virginia's open container law generally prohibits drivers from consuming alcohol in motor vehicles. However, Virginia is one of a handful of states that don't prohibit passengers from drinking alcohol or possessing open containers of alcohol in a vehicle. This article provides an overview of Virginia's open container law and the possible penalties for a violation.

What Does Virginia's Alcohol Open Container Law Say?

Technically, Virginia doesn't have an open container law. Instead, Virginia has a law that focuses on the driver's consumption of alcohol. The law makes it illegal for a driver to consume an alcoholic beverage while operating a motor vehicle on a public highway.

Presumption That the Driver Consumed Alcohol

Virginia's open container law creates a "rebuttable presumption" that the driver consumed alcohol if certain facts are present. Unless the offender is able to prove otherwise, the court will assume the driver consumed alcohol while driving a motor vehicle if:

  • an open container is in the passenger area of the motor vehicle
  • the alcoholic beverage has been partially removed from the open container, and
  • the driver shows signs associated with consuming alcohol.

"Containers" That Qualify Under Virginia Law

An "open container" includes any "vessel" that contains an alcoholic beverage unless it's in the original and sealed manufacturer's container. For example, an opened but re-corked bottle of wine is considered an open container.

How Virginia Law Defines "Passenger Area" for its Open Container Restrictions

The "passenger area" of a motor vehicle is defined as the area designed for the driver and passengers of the vehicle to sit and any area within the driver's reach, including an unlocked glove compartment. The "passenger area" doesn't include:

  • the trunk of the vehicle
  • the area behind the last upright seat of the vehicle if there isn't a trunk
  • the living area of a motor home, or
  • the passenger area of a motor vehicle that's used primarily for the transportation of persons for compensation, including buses, taxicabs, and limousines.

Virginia's Open Container Law Doesn't Apply to Passengers

The open container law doesn't apply to passengers in a vehicle but having an opened alcoholic beverage in the passenger area may result in the driver being charged with drinking while driving.

Penalties for Violating Virginia's Open Container Law

A driver who consumes an alcoholic beverage while operating a motor vehicle is guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor. The maximum fine is $250.

Virginia Alcohol Laws Applicable to Passengers

Although a passenger can't be cited for violating the state's open container law, passengers who possess or consume alcohol in a vehicle might be violating other laws.

Public Consumption of Alcohol

While Virginia's open container law doesn't specifically apply to passengers, drinking alcohol as a passenger in a vehicle might violate Virginia's public drinking law. That law prohibits any person from drinking an alcoholic beverage in a public place. A public place is defined as an area permitting public access, including highways, streets, and lanes.

Therefore, a passenger consuming alcohol in a vehicle that is located on a highway, street, or lane could, in some circumstances (a public bus, for example), be cited for violating the public drinking law. A violation of the public drinking law is a Class 4 misdemeanor. The maximum fine is $250.

Local Ordinances

Consuming alcohol and possessing open containers of alcohol as a passenger may also violate local ordinances. Some cities and counties in Virginia have ordinances prohibiting passengers from possessing open containers of alcohol on public streets, roads, and highways.

For example, the city of Charlottesville prohibits the possession of open containers of alcohol on any public street. And Chesterfield County prohibits open alcoholic beverages on any street, road, or highway located within the county. Violations of these ordinances constitute Class 4 misdemeanors and carry fines up to $250.

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