What Happens If You Are Caught with an Open Container of Alcohol in a National Park?

There are a number of national parks near Houston, including Big Thicket National Preserve, Padre Island National Seashore, and Big Bend National Park. These parks are popular recreational sites with Houston residents and other visitors alike. But when enjoying these parks, it is important to obey all applicable federal laws and regulations.

For example, there are separate and distinct federal regulations governing DWI and open container violations in national parks. As federal lands, national parks in Texas are subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior. This means that if you are caught committing an alcohol-based offense in a Texas national park, you can be charged with a federal crime.

Open container violations are governed by Title 36, Section 4.14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Basically, this section prohibits carrying or storing a bottle, can, or any other receptacle containing alcohol that is opened or had its contents partially removed within a motor vehicle while in a national park. There are exceptions to this rule if any of the following apply:

  • the open container is stored in the vehicle’s trunk;
  • if the vehicle has no trunk, the open container is stored in “some other portion” of the vehicle that is designed for storing luggage and is normally used, or accessible by, the driver and passengers;
  • the open container is kept in the “living quarters” of a vehicle such as a motorhome or camper;
  • where permitted by park authorities, the open container is “carried or stored” in a vehicle parked at an authorized campsite and the occupants are actually camping.

Dealing with the Federal Criminal System

A violation of Title 36, Section 4.14, is classified as a Class B misdemeanor under federal law. Unlike state misdemeanors, which are handled by the local district attorney, federal offenses are prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s office. And one thing to keep in mind: In federal court, you do not have the right to a jury trial in Class B misdemeanor cases. Instead, your case will normally be heard by a federal magistrate judge, who will review the evidence and decide if you are guilty or not guilty.

If convicted of an open container violation in a national park, the maximum sentence you face is six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. The magistrate judge can also require you to serve up to five years of federal probation. Depending on the case, the terms of probation may include mandatory community service or the installation of an ignition interlock device on your vehicle.

So if you are charged with an open container violation or DWI while inside a national park, you need to take the matter seriously. A qualified Houston DWI defense attorney can review your case and advise you of the appropriate steps to take next. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you need immediate assistance in Houston, Galveston or League City.