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Open Container & 4th Amendment Car Search


Typically, when law enforcement sees some type of open container of alcohol in someone's vehicle, they can then search the rest of the car—with or without consent—as long as the officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that he or she will find something else that is connected to the original offense—here, an open container of alcohol.

The Way the Alcohol is Typically Packaged & Used

A consolidated case (two cases in one) that came from the D.C. circuit stated two interesting, yet completely different, holdings for open container offenses. One case involved a Four Loko can, while the other case involved an open bottle of tequila. Furthermore, in both cases, the officer saw an open container of alcohol, and then proceeded to search the rest of the vehicle. However, in one case, the court ruled the rest of the search inadmissible, while the other was ruled admissible. The court's reason (or fact) that changed each case's outcome—the typical packaging and usage of the alcohol.

Four Loko case

In this case, only a can was spotted by the police officer. The search was then ruled inadmissible because the police officer had no other good cause to search the rest of the vehicle because the driver was alone, and there was no evidence that the Four Loko can was typically packaged with other Four Loko cans—it comes by itself. Bottom line—in this jurisdiction, the packaging and use of the alcohol made a huge difference in the defendant's defense.

Tequila case

In this case, only an open bottle was spotted by the police officer. The search was then ruled admissible because the driver was not alone, had another person with him, and there could have been evidence that the tequila bottle might be accompanied by other types of evidence connected with the bottle—drinking cups. Most people would agree that cups are typically used to drink tequila. Bottom line—in this same jurisdiction, the packaging and use of the alcohol made a huge difference, and gave the prosecutor a great argument.

One intelligent person to another could potentially reason that the court's reasoning begged an important question—so as long as the beer or alcohol is individually packaged or not used with any other connected piece of evidence, the police cannot search the rest of my car? This sounds like a mistake, but the logic is sound.

NOTE: this does NOT mean that someone can drink and drive and get away with it—this is not the point—in any state. The point is to show how a court's reasoning on two seemingly similar cases can negate each other and only asks more questions than it answers.

If you need assistance in an open container or OVI, contact your local Columbus criminal defense attorney at The Meranda Law Firm, LTD., where we will work diligently to get your case resolved in the utmost amicable manner.