Everything You Need to Know About the Open Container Law in Washington

Understanding your rights and responsibilities under the open container law in Washington can help you protect yourself against potential charges and know what steps to take if you face a traffic violation. Broadly speaking, the open container law makes it illegal to have an opened or unsealed container of alcohol in a place that’s accessible to the driver. This includes the front of the vehicle, glove box, center console, and, sometimes, even an empty backseat. 

If you’re caught with an open container of alcohol in your car, you may be looking at fines of up to $250 and community service. The charges may be more severe if you also have alcohol in your system or a prior record of violating this law. 

Veitch Ault Defense stands by those accused of violating Washington’s criminal laws. We regularly defend people charged with open container law violations, driving while intoxicated, speeding, reckless endangerment, and other crimes. Our King County DUI attorney is well-respected in his field and has spent nearly 20 years tirelessly advocating for those throughout the Evergreen State.  

What Is the Open Container Law in Washington?

Washington’s open container law makes it illegal to have an opened or unsealed bottle, can, or container of alcohol in your vehicle. If the opened container is anywhere within reach of the driver, it’s a traffic infraction. If the alcohol is in the trunk of the car, it may not be a violation to drive around with it in the vehicle. The courts consider places like the glove box and center console to be within reach of the driver. Even the backseat may be regarded as “within reach” of the driver, so the best practice is to put all alcoholic beverages in the trunk. It’s important to remember that you can get in trouble for breaking the open container law even if you are driving someone else’s car and, without you knowing about it, they have an open container of alcohol in it. 

What Is Considered an Open Container in Washington State?

Under the law, any receptacle that can hold liquids is a container. If the seal on that container is broken or the lid has been taken off, the item may count as an open container. For example, a full water bottle with alcohol in it might be considered an open container. This might be the case because the lid has been taken off, and the seal is broken. Additionally, if it looks like some of the alcohol was removed from a bottle or container, it may fall under the open container law. 

What Are the Penalties for Violating Open Container Laws in WA?

If you break Washington’s open container law, you may get a traffic infraction (ticket) on your record. The penalties for traffic infractions typically involve a fine of $250 or less (based on the special fee schedule for these charges) and community restitution (community service). If you have more than the legal limit of alcohol in your system when you get pulled over, you may also face a DUI charge, which can carry much higher fines and bring the possibility of a jail sentence as well. If this isn’t your first DUI in Washington State, you may face a higher charge, such as a felony DUI. 

What Are the Open Container Law Fines if You Violate It? 

The judge that handles your case decides what fines to assign you based on the circumstances and any mitigating (favorable) factors you or your attorney present. Typically, the fees for a simple, first-time traffic infraction are $250 or less. But you might have to pay higher fines if things like drinking and driving are present or you have multiple charges on your record. 

Washington law has incredibly strict rules about alcohol and operating a vehicle. If you’re facing a traffic infraction for breaking the open container law, don’t leave the outcome up to chance. You might set yourself up for a more severe penalty if you make a mistake in the future. A seasoned Washington DUI attorney can help you by preparing a solid defense and presenting it to the judge on your behalf. 

What Are the Open Container Law Exceptions?

The open container law has noteworthy exceptions, particularly for those going on vacation or a group trip. People who are on a chartered vehicle (like a party bus) may be able to have and consume alcohol as long as they aren’t the ones driving. RV campers and those with motor homes may also breathe sighs of relief because the law may allow them to have open containers of alcohol in the living quarters portion of the unit. Again, if the driver of these vehicles has access to the beer or liquor (or has over the legal limit in their system), they may be breaking the open container law or other Washington traffic laws. 

Where Are Open Containers Allowed?

Under Washington’s law, you can have open containers of alcohol in the trunk of the car or somewhere else that is inaccessible to the driver. If the vehicle doesn’t have a trunk, you might be able to house beer or liquor in spaces where the driver or passengers usually don’t go. For example, this could be the bed of a truck or a secure storage compartment on the top rack of a vehicle. If the cans or bottles are in the front or back seat, it may violate the open container law—even if there aren’t any passengers to hand them over to the driver. 

Veitch Ault Defense: Fierce DUI Attorneys Serving Washington State

Washington’s open container regulations can be confusing for people to understand if they don’t have a legal education. On top of that, how you respond to a ticket for having an open bottle or can of alcohol in your car can have important implications for your future. After all, a second or third violation may mean you face higher fines or charges. If you’re facing a ticket for breaking the open container law in Washington, you need a strong and knowledgeable legal team to fight for your interests. 

Robert Ault has nearly two decades of hands-on experience fighting for people accused of crimes in Washington. Because of his firm’s tireless advocacy, the courts threw out hundreds of breathalyzer test results. His dedication to the rights of the accused has earned him the honor of making the Super Lawyers list from 2016 through to 2023. Fellow lawyers describe Robert Ault as a gifted trial attorney who is a zealous advocate for his clients. Past clients praise him for going to bat for them in the courtroom, reassuring them throughout the legal process, and delivering exceptional results. 

If you’re facing a traffic infraction because you had alcohol in the car, contact us today at 425-312-6753 to schedule a FREE, no-obligation consultation.


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