Having an open container of alcohol in your car is essentially an invitation to a police officer to detain you on suspicion of drunk driving–or worse. From a legal standpoint, the open container provides the officer with “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” This means that while you may not be under arrest, you are also not free to leave, and anything you say or do in the officer’s presence may be used as evidence against you in court.
Understanding the Line Between a “Consensual Encounter” and an “Investigative Detention”
Indeed, there are cases where an open container leads police to evidence of a much more serious offense. Consider this recent decision from a Texas appeals court, Adams v. State. In the early morning of May 7, 2015, a police officer for the Fort Worth suburb of Benbrook was sitting in his patrol car in a nearly vacant shopping center parking lot. The officer observed a white Ford Mustang park and change sports three times. This struck the officer as unusual, so he decided to speak to the driver.
The officer asked the driver–the defendant in this case–for identification. During the course of this encounter, the officer noticed an open container of alcohol in the center console next to the defendant. At this point, the officer suspected the defendant might be driving drunk. The officer proceeded to administer a field sobriety test, which the defendant passed.
However, the officer also conducted a search of the defendant and his vehicle which led to the recovery of two firearms and drug paraphernalia. The officer issued a citation for the paraphernalia and ordered the defendant to lock the weapons in his truck, as he did not have a concealed handgun license. The officer then released the defendant.
Later that morning, the defendant had two more encounters with different police officers. Based on evidence gathered from all three events, Fort Worth police eventually tied the defendant to a murder that occurred at a truck stop earlier that day.
Basically, investigators determined the victim was shot by a man meeting the defendant’s description who left the truck stop in a white Ford Mustang. Although nobody witnesses the defendant shoot the victim, the circumstantial evidence was sufficient for the jury to convict the defendant of murder.
On appeal, the defendant argued the trial judge should have suppressed evidence gathered from the initial encounter with the police officer in Benbrook. The appeals court rejected this argument. It noted that during the initial “consensual encounter,” the officer was allowed to stop and ask the defendant for his name and identification without any reasonable suspicion.
Once the officer saw the open container of alcohol, however, the encounter “became an investigative detention,” which allowed the police to search and seize evidence that could be properly introduced at the defendant’s murder trial–even if he was not under suspicion of the crime at that time.
Facing Criminal Charges for an Open Container Violation?
Speak with an Experienced Criminal Defense Lawyer Today
Obviously, having an open container of alcohol in your car does not make you a murder suspect. But it does open you up to an “investigative detention” that can lead to significant legal problems. This is why your best option when questioned by police is to remain silent and, if you are placed under arrest, to speak with a qualified Houston criminal defense lawyer. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you need immediate advice or assistance.