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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Cmelik Law PLC

Cedar Rapids Criminal Lawyer: Open containers

empty beer bottles
What not to have in cars - Cedar Rapids criminal lawyer explainer

What is an open container for purposes Iowa Code § 321.284?

In the State of Iowa, a prohibited “open container” in an automobile is an “open or unsealed bottle, can, jar, or other receptacle containing an alcoholic beverage.” Iowa Code § 321.284.

Who is subject to the prohibition on open containers in a car?

A driver or a passenger of a motor vehicle upon a public street or highway. Iowa Code §§ 321.284 and 321.284A.

Where is an open container prohibited pursuant to Iowa Code § 321.284?

In the “passenger area” of a motor vehicle. “Passenger area” means the area designed to seat the driver and passengers while the motor vehicle is in operation and any area that is readily accessible to the driver or a passenger while in their seating positions, including the glove compartment.

Where can a driver transport an open container legally on a public street or highway?

An open or unsealed receptacle containing an alcoholic beverage may be transported in the trunk of the motor vehicle. An unsealed receptacle containing an alcoholic beverage may be transported behind the last upright seat of the motor vehicle if the motor vehicle does not have a trunk. Iowa Code § 321.284.

What is the penalty for an open container violation?

Open container violations. For violations under sections 321.284 and 321.284A, the scheduled fine is two hundred dollars. There is a 35% surcharge on all fines in the State of Iowa. Court costs will be taxed to the Defendant.

How else can I get into trouble if I possess an open container in a car?

An open container in a car may lead to a more serious OWI, or, Operating While Intoxicated or Operating While Under the Influence investigation, sometimes called DUI in other states. The open container violation may contribute to reasonable grounds to believe someone is impaired pursuant to Iowa Code § 321J.5. In addition, drivers who are under age 21 simultaneously commit a violation of Iowa Code § 123.47, Persons Under the Legal Age, or, PULA.

Can I carry empty beer cans and liquor bottles in the passenger area of my car if they have no alcohol in them?

Not if you don’t want to get cited or arrested erroneously. Empty beer cans and liquor bottles can be used against you in an OWI investigation even if you are sober. They also can be used to cite you for Iowa Code § 321.284 violations. While it is true that the empties must “contain” an alcoholic beverage and be within the passenger area, there is almost always some alcohol in such empty containers. Moreover, it’s your word against the officer’s that they were not readily accessible. You should not risk it.

In State v. Burton, a man who wrecked his van was charged with OWI. The officer also charged him with open container because they found a vodka bottle in his van. Though the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled there was no evidence the bottle was readily accessible to the defendant, he was still charged and convicted by a jury before the open container conviction was overturned. The OWI conviction, which, in part, depended on the presence of the open container, was upheld.

State v. Burton, 808 N.W.2d 755 (Iowa Ct. App. 2011)(unpublished).

Carry empties in a bag in the trunk or in a sealed bag behind the last rear seat of an SUV or van. Do not drive around with them for days. Recycle or redeem them promptly.

What about limos and party buses? Is it legal to possess open containers in those vehicles?

Iowa Code § 321.284A states that “[t]his section does not apply to a passenger being transported in a motor vehicle designed, maintained, or used primarily for the transportation of persons for compensation."

So possession of an open container in one of those vehicles is not an open container violation—but be careful. When you arrive at your destination, it is not legal to be publicly intoxicated, a violation of Iowa Code § 123.46.

For a free consultation regarding a criminal matter that began as an open container violation, contact us today. David A. Cmelik Law PLC is an Iowa law firm limited exclusively to criminal defense. The firm principal, David Cmelik, has over 17 years experience with over 4,250 cases completed.


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