Iowa's Open Container Law: What You Need to Know

Road trip break at sunset drinking a fresh beer with friends
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Some things about the state of Iowa are a little surprising, like the fact that the State Library reports that it has more golf courses per capita than any other state. Other things are a little less surprising, though, like the fact that, for the most part, you can't legally drive with an open alcoholic beverage. Iowa's open container law is very similar to others across the United States, and the rules are pretty straightforward.

What's Not Allowed in Iowa

The heart of the Hawkeye State's open container law lies in Iowa Code Section 321.284. Basically, this legislation mandates that it is illegal for any driver of a motor vehicle on any public street or highway in Iowa to have an open container of an alcoholic beverage in the passenger area of a motor vehicle.

Likewise, vehicle passengers are not allowed to have an open alcoholic beverage container in their possession while riding in the passenger area of the motor vehicle or in any other spot that may be readily accessible to the driver.

To really hone in on the law, it helps to define some terms: Per the code, that open container includes any unsealed bottle, can, jar or other unsealed receptacle. The passenger area refers to the area of the motor vehicle that is designed to seat the driver and passengers while the vehicle is in operation or any other area that is readily accessible to the driver (and, yes, that includes the glove compartment).

What Is Allowed in Iowa

There are some reasonable exceptions to Iowa's statewide open container laws. For one, that open container of alcoholic beverage can be legally transported in the trunk of a motor vehicle. On the same note, Iowa drivers are also allowed to transport an open container of alcohol behind the last upright seat of the motor vehicle, if that vehicle does not have a trunk. So, while these options may end up physically messy, they're at least legally clean.

In the land of corn and pork, there are also legal exceptions to open container laws for certain types of vehicles. For instance, Section 321.284 does not apply to passengers riding in motor vehicles designed, maintained or primarily used to commercially transport passengers. Passengers being transported in the living areas of vehicles, such as motor homes, RVs, manufactured or mobile homes, travel trailers or fifth-wheel travel trailers are also exempt from the state's open container law.

Penalties for Open Container Violations

Section 321.284 of the Iowa Code classifies driving a motor vehicle with an open alcoholic beverage as a simple misdemeanor, the penalties for which can be found in Section 805.8A of the same code. Under this law, the scheduled fine is $200. According to the Iowa law firm, Puryear Law P.C., some simple misdemeanor charges may also carry up to 30 days in county jail. As noted by Nolo, the penalties escalate for underage offenders.

Those under 21 years of age are also subject to charges for being a minor in possession of alcohol, as detailed in Iowa Code Section 123.47. So, in addition to facing the same penalties as an adult open container law offender, a minor can also be charged with the simple misdemeanor of possessing alcohol under the legal age, resulting in another $200 fine. However, the court may choose to have underage violators perform community service in lieu of monetary penalties.

In the case of these misdemeanors, the fee goes up to $500 for the second offense. Second offenders must also complete a substance abuse evaluation or have their driver's license suspended for a year. On the third offense, the evaluation is not an option – it's straight to a full year of license suspension.