Washington state prohibits open containers of alcohol and marijuana in motor vehicles and in public. However, there are exceptions regarding who can carry an open container and where they can store it. It is also against the law to disguise an open alcoholic beverage while in a vehicle or drink in a vehicle while driving on a public highway. Violators of open container laws face penalties such as citations, fines, community service and jail time.
Definition of Open Container Law
According to Washington State Legislature statute RCW Section 46.61.519, the term open container constitutes "a bottle, can or other receptacle containing an alcoholic beverage if the container has been opened or a seal broken or the contents partially removed." The vehicle's driver or the registered owner must keep the open container in the trunk or, in the absence of one, in an area of the vehicle not occupied by passengers. Glove or utility compartments don't count as they are within this area.
While the law prohibits drivers from drinking or possessing alcohol, there are exceptions for some passengers:
- Passengers in a motor home or camper's living area.
- Passengers in a licensed for-hire vehicle, such as a limousine.
- Passengers in vehicles operated by a driver with a commercial driver's license transporting them at an employer's direction.
Penalties for Violating Open Container Laws
According to NOLO, Washington considers an open container violation to be a traffic infraction, which has a maximum penalty of $250, plus fees. If the offender does not have the money to pay the ticket they have the option of performing community service work at minimum wage. Drivers of for-hire vehicles face a misdemeanor charge if found drinking or possessing alcohol in an open container. This conviction carries with it up to 90 days in jail, a maximum $1,000 fine, or both.
A driver who allows a minor to consume alcohol in the vehicle they operate or own faces a gross misdemeanor charge. This conviction comes with penalties of up to 364 days in jail, a maximum $5,000 fine, or both. The state also makes it illegal to disguise an open alcoholic beverage in a vehicle by mislabeling the container or by putting it in a container originally used for nonalcoholic drinks. This is a traffic infraction with a maximum fine of $250.
Open Container Law and Marijuana
Washington's open container law also addresses transporting marijuana. As with alcohol, this is an infraction with a maximum fine of $250, plus fees. According to statute RCW Section 46.61.745, a registered owner or driver of a vehicle and their passengers cannot consume marijuana on a public highway or disguise a container of marijuana by mislabeling it.
There are also exceptions to the rule regarding transporting marijuana. Doing so in a vehicle is legal if:
- The vehicle's driver or registered owner keeps the open container in the trunk of the vehicle or, in the absence of a trunk, in an area not occupied by passengers.
- The package, container or receptacle has an unbroken seal with its contents intact.
Open Container Law and Boating
Washington allows open alcoholic beverage containers on watercraft. Operators and passengers can legally drink while boating, but the law prohibits anyone from operating vessels while intoxicated. This applies to "every description of watercraft on the water, other than a seaplane...it does not include inner tubes, air mattresses, sailboards, and small rafts or flotation devices or toys customarily used by swimmers," according to RCW Section 79A.60.010.
A boating under the influence charge (BUI) occurs when a boat operator has a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08 percent or higher or a THC (the main psychoactive component in marijuana) concentration of 5.00 or greater. An impaired boat operator faces a gross misdemeanor charge and penalties of up to 364 days in jail, a $5,000 fine or both, according to Washington State Parks.
Alcohol Delivery and Sales During Covid-19
To support the struggling restaurant industry during the Covid-19 pandemic, Governor Jay Inslee relaxed some laws regarding delivery of alcohol from restaurants and bars that would have otherwise been open. As of date of publication, according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB), licensed establishments can sell alcohol to patrons until 11 p.m. daily in manufacturer-sealed bottles or cans of beer, wine or spirits along with food orders.
Licensed establishments can make curbside sales and deliveries under these conditions:
- Beer remains sealed in growlers, kegs, bottles or cans.
- Wine is in factory-sealed bottles.
- Spirits are in factory-sealed bottles or secured with a lid or cap if already in mixed drinks. Containers must not have holes for straws or be styrofoam or plastic. Drivers must transport cocktails in the trunk or somewhere else beyond the driver's reach.
- Delivery workers must be over 21.
Open Container and Marijuana During the Covid-19 Pandemic
According to Seattle PI, cannabis deliveries in Washington are illegal. The state allows for curbside pick up and in-store purchases, but not drive-through sales. Regardless, anyone who purchases marijuana must remain diligent regarding the open container laws around transporting it.
During this time, state law remains the same. Transporting marijuana is legal if the vehicle's driver or registered owner keeps the container in the trunk or in an area not occupied by passengers. It must have an unbroken seal or remain otherwise closed with its contents intact.
- Washington State Legislature: RCW Section 46.61.519 Alcoholic Beverages—Drinking or Open Container in Vehicle on Highway—Exceptions
- Washington State Legislature: RCW Section 46.61.745 Possessing or Consuming Marijuana in Vehicle on Highway—Penalty, Exceptions—Definition
- Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board: Guidance - Alcohol Licensees
- Seattle PI: Seattle Liquor and Cannabis Business Amid Coronavirus: Can They Deliver?
- NOLO: Washington Public Intoxication Laws
- Washington State Legislature: RCW Section 66.44.100 Opening or Consuming Liquor in Public Place — Penalty
- Washington State Legislature: RCW Section 79A.60.010 Definitions
- Washington State Parks: Boating Under the Influence
- NOLO: Washington’s Open Container Laws
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.