Red, white and booze: Understanding lesser-known drinking laws this July 4th

News, Crime

This article has been updated since original publication.

The Fourth of July is a time when Americans can reflect on their independence and history, and indulge in their right to consume copious amounts of ice-cold beer, among other adult beverages.

Fireworks and hot dogs aside, July Fourth marks one of the most dangerous times of the year for drunk driving accidents and roadway fatalities. It is also the number one holiday for arrests related to boating while intoxicated, an offense often treated as severely as, or more seriously than, an automobile-related DUI charge.

The following provides a brief overview of general legal principles regarding drinking while driving, boating or operating recreational vehicles. Be sure to consult your local jurisdiction’s rules before partaking and, as always, remember to drink responsibly.

Drinking and automobiles

Drinking and driving is one of the most deadly activities occurring in the United States today. Over 10,000 people were killed in alcohol-related accidents in 2015 alone. We all know the general law prohibiting anyone from getting behind the wheel while under the influence. However, there are several less-understood areas of the law that may affect drivers this upcoming holiday weekend, including what to do at a DUI checkpoint or how to navigate open-container laws.

DUI checkpoints are legal in all but a handful of U.S. states. Checkpoints are mandatory traffic stops set up in areas likely frequented by intoxicated motorists. Police generally blockade the entire roadway in both directions and require each driver to stop and allow police to check for signs of impairment, like watery eyes, slurred speech, or the smell of alcohol.

Drivers should be prepared when encountering a DUI checkpoint and follow the general guidelines described below.

  • Approach a checkpoint with caution at a safe, slow speed.
  • Never attempt to quickly turn around to avoid the checkpoint. This will likely trigger a traffic stop anyway.
  • Know your state’s open-container laws if your passengers are drinking. The federal government provides financial incentives to states prohibiting open containers and consumption of alcohol in vehicles. However, not every state has opted in.
  • Never attempt to exit your vehicle during a checkpoint inspection.
  • Remain respectful and courteous to the officer, and he or she will likely return the respect.
  • If you are arrested, your best bet is to contact an experienced DUI/DWI attorney in your area.

Drinking and boating

Drinking and operating a boat is a seriously dangerous combination that has prompted all 50 states to enact boating while intoxicated laws to address and deter the problem.

The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that roughly one-third of all boating fatalities occur as a result of alcohol use. While there are generally no open-container laws against providing alcohol for passengers on board a watercraft, guests are just as susceptible to accident or injury by way of falling overboard, slipping or drowning.

In addition, jurisdictions with a high rate of recreational boaters often increase the presence of law enforcement during holidays like July Fourth, so it is especially important to designate an experienced, sober boater to navigate the waterways during the summer holiday season.

Drinking on an RV: What is allowed?

RVs often feature prominently in annual family vacations, so it is helpful to understand the legal implications of drinking in a moving RV, as open-container legislation in many states distinguishes between a motor vehicle, such as a car or minivan, and a true RV.

As mentioned earlier, the federal government provides a model open-container statute that, when followed exactly, qualifies states for additional highway and safety funding. States are expected to prohibit open containers in motor vehicles. However, the statute provides a loophole: states excluding “the living quarters of a house coach or house trailer” from open-container regulations are still within the confines of the law and eligible for federal subsidies. Many states have expanded the definition of “house coach” to include campers, motor homes, station wagons, hatchbacks, or any vehicle designed to carry 10 passengers or more. So, in those states it is legal for passengers — not drivers — to have open containers in specified vehicles.

Nearly every state permits open containers in taxicabs, limousines and other vehicles that transport passengers for hire, but to be safe, check your state’s laws before hitting the road.