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Who Taught You To Drive?

Law is no open and shut case

By Peter DeMarco
January 17, 2010

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We all know the basics when it comes to alcohol and driving. If your blood alcohol content is above .08 in Massachusetts, you’re considered legally drunk. If you have an open bottle of alcohol in the car you’re in violation of the open container law.

But what if you’re coming home from a fancy restaurant with a bottle of wine you didn’t finish at the table, as diners have been allowed to do since 2008? Is that an open container?

Does alcohol need to be stowed in the trunk, like Dad always preached?

Or what if an empty beer can has been rattling around your floor since you tailgated at a Patriots game last fall - if an officer sees it, are you in trouble?

This week, we dissect the rules for transporting alcohol. Given the penalties that are involved - get ready for some surprises - I recommend making a New Year’s resolution to obey them.

The law says
The open container law applies to everyone riding in the vehicle, not just the driver. Specifically, the law says you can’t have any open alcohol containers in the “passenger area,’’ which includes the driver’s seat.

Open containers are supposed to be carried in the trunk or in a locked glove compartment.

If you drive an SUV that doesn’t have a separate trunk, open bottles must go in “the area behind the last upright seat or an area not normally occupied by the driver or passenger.’’

Break the law and you can be fined anywhere from $100 to $500, though police tend to fine the maximum, I’m told. In addition, underage drivers not accompanied by a parent or guardian “can be arrested, fined, and have [their] license suspended,’’ according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ driver’s manual.

What about unopened bottles of alcohol? Do those need to be stored in the trunk as well?

“No,’’ said Sergeant Joseph Deignan, head of Watertown’s traffic unit. “Anything open is illegal, but you can have anything unopened in the front seat.’’

As for the unfinished bottle of wine from dinner, well, it’s a bit more complicated.

First, restaurants are under no obligation to let you take bottles with you. If they do, a restaurant employee is supposed to reseal the bottle according to specific guidelines issued by the Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.

The bottle must be corked and placed in a “one-time-use tamper-proof transparent bag’’ that is securely sealed. Your dinner receipt also must be affixed to the bag.

But a resealed bottle is not the same as an unopened bottle. And state law requires a “resealed’’ bottle to be stowed in the trunk.

“If an individual is transporting a resealed bottle in the passenger area of the vehicle, then that individual would be in violation of the open container law,’’ said Andrea Nardone, vehicular crimes staff attorney for the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. “It must be in the trunk and, presumably, even a glove box if it fits.’’

While that may be an inconvenience, it’s also probably a smart thing to do, Deignan said.

“If you’re coming from a restaurant with the odor of alcohol on your breath, I wouldn’t want to have the half bottle of wine with a cork in it near you when an officer pulls you over,’’ he said.

Now for that empty beer can on the floor.

I thought for sure this would count as a violation, but Deignan said the open container law doesn’t apply.

“An empty can doesn’t count,’’ he said. The exception, of course, is when an officer spots evidence that the can was emptied during the ride.

“If the can is still cold, it’s still got frost on it, it was a full Bud and they just managed to get down the last gulp, I’m still charging them,’’ Deignan said. “But I’m not looking for any old beer can that’s been around a few days or weeks.’’

That’s not to say you should drive with empty cans in the car. I asked Lieutenant Jack Albert, the Cambridge Police Department’s traffic commander, whether officers will automatically issue a sobriety test if they spot an open container.

He said that a container alone is not enough evidence to issue a test, but it does give an officer cause to have everyone step out of the car so he or she can search for more cans. When that happens, you’re going nowhere fast.

We’ll cover transporting alcohol across state lines and other topics next time.

As several readers pointed out, I had a mistake in my annual driving quiz. Question 7 was false, but I accidentally transposed the percentages. Your car’s front brakes do about 65 percent of the work, rear brakes the other 35 percent.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. He also updates a Facebook page, “WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’