The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that possessing an open container of alcohol in a car is a civil violation, rather than a criminal offense. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Mansur.
Following his stop by a police officer, the defendant was charged with operating under the influence of alcohol and possessing an open container of alcohol in a car. Following a jury trial, the defendant was found not guilty of operating under the influence of alcohol, but guilty of the open container charge. He argued that the open container charge was not a criminal offense, and he should therefore be assessed a civil fine instead of a criminal sentence. The trial judge disagreed, holding that an open container violation does, in fact, constitute a crime. The defendant appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed, concluding an open container violation constitutes a civil violation rather than a criminal offense.
The open container law does not provide for the possibility of a jail sentence, as the maximum penalty is a fine. The question for the Supreme Judicial Court was whether the open container law constitutes an “automobile law violation,” which is a civil motor vehicle infraction. Automobile law violations are statutory violations that relate to the safe use or operation of a car. The Court concluded that the open container law aims to prevent drunk driving, which involves the safe use or operation of a car. Therefore, possessing an open container of alcohol in a car is an automobile law violation and accordingly is not a criminal offense.
Ordinarily, a civil motor vehicle infraction is a law related to the use and operation of a car where the maximum penalty does not carry a jail sentence. A motor vehicle criminal offense, on the other hand, is a crime that carries the possibility of a jail sentence. Given the Court’s ruling that automobile law violations consist of statutory violations that relate to the safe use or operation of a car, the Court needed to determine if the open container statute satisfied that definition. The Court reviewed the history of the statute, noting its enactment in 1982 was included in a large-scale legislative package that aimed to punish drunk drivers. The initial statute prohibited a driver from drinking from an open container while driving. In 2000, the statute was amended to prohibit anyone from possessing an open container of alcohol in a car, regardless of whether the driver or passengers were actively drinking from it. Nevertheless, despite the amendment, the goal of the statute remains to decrease the number of drivers who operate their cars while under the influence of alcohol (it is not illegal to possess an open container in a trunk or other area of the car that is not readily accessible to the passengers or the driver). Because a violation of the open container statute constitutes an automobile law violation, it cannot be criminal in nature. Therefore, the defendant’s conviction for an open container violation was vacated. The case was remanded to the trial court, where instead of being found “guilty” of a criminal offense, the defendant will likely be found “responsible” of a civil violation. The distinction is important because civil violations are not listed on a defendant’s criminal record.