Virginia’s Open Container Law

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

Virginia’s open container law generally prohibits drivers from consuming and possessing open containers of 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.

Consumption of Alcohol While Driving a Motor Vehicle

In Virginia, it’s unlawful for a driver to consume an alcoholic beverage while operating a motor vehicle on a public highway. 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. Virginia’s open container law creates a “rebuttable presumption” that the driver consumed alcohol if certain facts are present. This means that, unless the offender proves 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.

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.

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.


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

Laws Applicable to Passengers

While Virginia’s open container law doesn’t specifically apply to passengers, drinking alcohol as a passenger in a vehicle will often 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 is in violation of the public drinking law. Violation of the public drinking law constitutes a Class 4 misdemeanor. The maximum fine is $250.

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 possession of open containers of alcohol on any public street. And Chesterfield County prohibits opened 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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