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Judge John E. Turner (Ret.)

Washington's open container law

Washington is one of 43 states that have passed laws to address the issue of open containers of alcohol in moving vehicles. While Congress has not passed legislation dealing with the issue directly, the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century allows lawmakers to reduce the amount of federal highway funding going to states that allow vehicle occupants to possess open containers of alcohol. Under Washington law, containers of alcohol that have been opened must be stored in vehicle trunks or other places inaccessible to either drivers or passengers.

While the consequences of violating Washington's open container law will generally be far less severe than a drunk driving conviction, drivers and passengers in violation of RCW 46.61.519 can be cited for a traffic infraction and fined. The driver or registered owner of a vehicle can also be cited for allowing their passengers to drink. The law grants exceptions for charter buses and the living areas of most motor homes and campers.

In June 2015, Washington's open container law was extended to cover marijuana when Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1276 into law. Voters in the Evergreen State approved a ballot measure allowing the marijuana to be used for recreational purposes in November 2012. The bill also restored the state's authority to automatically suspend the driving privileges of individuals found to be driving under the influence of the drug.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may vigorously contest the validity of drunk driving charges based on THC being discovered during toxicology testing. THC can be detected in blood tests long after any intoxication has dissipated, and even high concentrations of the metabolite may not be enough to significantly impair a heavy marijuana user.

Source: Washington State Legislature, "RCW 46.61.519", accessed on Nov. 27, 2016.

Source: Newsweek, "Washington Passes Open Container Law for Marijuana", Taylor Woffard, July 21, 2015

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