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Generally speaking, you cannot legally drink alcohol in New Hampshire while you are a passenger in a private motor vehicle. However, you can generally legally drink as a passenger in a vehicle for hire, like a taxi or in the living area of an RV.
Here’s an overview of how New Hampshire’s open container law works for vehicle passengers and why it’s a good idea to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney like those at Shepherd & Hayes, PLLC if you face any open container charge.
New Hampshire’s law on transporting alcoholic beverages states that passengers cannot legally “carry, possess, or have” (i.e., drink) open alcoholic beverages while riding in or on a vehicle. This is for any vehicle that is situated on a “public highway, street, avenue, road, alley, park, or parkway, or any private way laid out under authority of statute,” or in any public parking area.
Passengers can have, but not drink from, unopened bottles of alcohol with their original seals intact. They can also have closed or partially-filled bottles of alcohol, as long as those bottles are carried in the area of the vehicle least accessible to the driver.
This law applies to any type of automobile, including ATVs and snowmobiles. It is in force on virtually every road and trail open to vehicle travel, and it applies both to moving and stationary vehicles whether or not the engine is running.
A passenger who violates this law is guilty of a violation and subject to a $150 fine. A violation is not a crime, but you can be arrested for it, which can have long-term consequences. Contact a criminal defense attorney if you face an open container charge as a vehicle passenger.
New Hampshire’s law against drinking alcohol in a vehicle does not apply to passengers in a chartered bus, taxi, or limousine for hire. For example, it is legal to drink on a private bus transporting a bachelor or bachelorette party, or in a taxi driving you home from a New Year’s Eve celebration.
This exception may also extend to passengers in rideshare vehicles like Uber or Lyft cars, but as of October 2022, neither the legislature nor the New Hampshire Supreme Court have addressed that question directly. Contact a lawyer right away if you face an open container charge due to drinking as a passenger in a rideshare vehicle.
The New Hampshire open container statute also specifically legalizes drinking alcohol while you are a passenger in any section of a vehicle “which has been designed or modified for the overnight accommodation of persons or as living quarters.” This means you can generally drink at the dining table of your RV while parked in a public parking area or traveling on the highway.
Keep in mind, however, that the right to drink legally in an RV (or any other vehicle) in New Hampshire does not protect you from violating other alcohol-related statutes. Engaging in dangerously rowdy or violent conduct as an intoxicated vehicle passenger, for example, can subject you to criminal charges like disturbing the peace, public indecency, or assault, all of which can be punishable by imprisonment, fines, and probation.
Without exception, a driver can never legally drink while operating any type of motor vehicle in New Hampshire. A driver also cannot get behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol consumed earlier. Violations of these laws can subject drivers to misdemeanor or felony charges that can come with serious life consequences like job loss, family disruptions, and loss of immigration status.
Drivers also cannot legally possess, carry, or transport alcohol in the passenger area of a vehicle they’re operating except if the alcohol is in its original container and has never been opened. Unlike passengers, drivers generally cannot transport previously opened, partially full bottles of alcohol in the passenger area of their vehicles. They can only have those bottles in the trunk of their vehicle or, if the vehicle doesn’t have a trunk, in the area of the vehicle that is least accessible to the driver.
Drivers under the age of 21 face even stricter rules. They cannot transport alcohol at all under New Hampshire law except when accompanied by a parent, legal guardian, or legal age spouse, domestic partner, or sibling. This rule applies even to unopened, full bottles of alcohol. A violation can subject a young driver to a 60-day license suspension, in addition to any other penalty.
New Hampshire taxi and for-hire drivers, too, must never have alcohol in the driver’s areas of their vehicles, even if transporting passengers who are drinking. Violating this rule is a violation punishable by a $150 fine. It may also affect the driver’s ability to continue driving a taxi or for-hire vehicle.
If you or someone you love has been charged with illegal drinking as a vehicle passenger in New Hampshire, seek legal help immediately. A conviction for this offense is punishable at the very least by a fine and may carry broader consequences for your life. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can advocate for your interests and take steps to protect you from potentially harsh penalties and outcomes.
Shepherd & Hayes, PLLC is a highly respected New Hampshire criminal defense law firm. We fight to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals who have been accused of violating New Hampshire law, including those facing open container charges. Contact us online or call (603) 233-1626 for a free consultation with a knowledgeable attorney.