The very first day I attended court, a man came in with an open container charge. Before even speaking to his lawyer, he said he wanted to plead guilty. I had the impression that he was frustrated with being there and just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible—a pattern I’ve noticed with a lot of defendants who want to avoid having to come in week after week to hash out the details of their cases. When he heard that the fine for an open container was $100, he exclaimed: “That’s one expensive can of beer!” Everyone in the courtroom laughed, and the judge responded by saying that what was more surprising is that the same people keep coming in with the exact same charge over and over again. While the whole exchange was a bit funny, I couldn’t help but wonder about the history of open container laws and who exactly they were meant to protect.
Since that day, I have seen 13 different open container cases during my time as a court watcher. According to Poughkeepsie’s local ordinance, the purpose of restricting open containers and the consumption of alcoholic beverages in public spaces is to reduce urban blight and neighborhood decay, juvenile delinquency, crime, and the general public’s fear about the safety of public spaces. However, upon further research I found that open container laws are actually a continuation of old laws against public drunkenness and vagrancy that were prevalent in many states and municipalities in the early 1960’s. Because the Supreme Court determined that enforcement of these laws was overly subjective and unfairly targeted homeless and alcoholic men, they were struck down as unconstitutional in a string of rulings starting in 1964. Drunkenness was decriminalized and reframed as a public health issue. In response, local laws began to target public drinking. In reality, these local ordinances have the same effect as the previous laws did—criminalizing poor people.
While most people support restrictions on public drinking, it is important to pause and consider who can afford access to private gathering spaces—like bars and restaurants—where drinking is legal. Moreover, there’s no evidence that open container laws actually correlate to, much less cause, a reduction in more serious crimes. In fact, U.S. municipalities where public drinking is legal do not have any of the serious problems that open container laws claim they are preventing. Therefore, I’m left wondering if we really need open container laws that serve no better purpose than criminalizing people who police officers deem as disturbing the peace. I don’t have an answer to this quandary, but there has to be a better way than fining people and dragging them into court every other week. In a society where it seems we are becoming more and more isolated from one another, we shouldn’t underestimate the value of having public spaces where people can come together over a beer. Ideally, that beer would cost less than $100.
To learn more about the history of drinking in public in America, check out this Huffington Post article.