On February 21, 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that driving with an open alcohol container is not a crime in Massachusetts. It is still illegal, but can no longer be prosecuted as a criminal offense. In other words, the infraction has been demoted from a crime to a civil violation.
A man was charged and tried in the Marlborough District Court. After a jury trial, he was convicted of possessing an open container of alcohol in his vehicle. Interestingly, he was found not guilty of the other charge he faced, Operating Under the Influence of Liquor (OUI).
He appealed his conviction for the open container charge all the way up to the Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts’ highest appellate court. The court ruled in his favor, deciding that the law was not meant to criminalize the conduct. The justices reasoned that the “statute was originally enacted to protect against drink driving and, despite more recent amendments to the statute, is still aimed at that purpose. Accordingly, possession of an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle is a civil motor vehicle infraction, rather than a criminal offense.”
The ruling overturned an earlier understanding, where a 2011 Supreme Judicial Court decision concluded that it was a crime – a misdemeanor – to possess an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle.
As of right now (February 23, 2020), it is not a crime to possess an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle. That said, it’s not advisable, and remains a civil infraction. In addition, it would not be surprising to see the legislature react to the court’s ruling by criminalizing the conduct in a change to the law.