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Open container law goes into effect Oct. 1

| September 30, 2005 12:00 AM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

Montana's days as one of the last states where drinking and driving is legal will come to an end when the open container law passed by the 2005 Legislature goes into effect on Saturday.

For the first time statewide, simply having an open container of an alcoholic beverage inside a vehicle will be illegal. Violations will be punishable by a maximum fine of $100.

The new law is raising questions among those charged with enforcing it, said Lincoln County Sheriff Daryl Anderson. Anderson said on Wednesday that he still had not received a final draft of the law or guidelines for enforcement. He said a number of issues regarding the application of the law are unclear.

"You might have an empty can or two in your car," he said. "What happens if your kid takes your car and gets picked up?"

Anderson said he also foresees problems arising in "designated driver" situations where passengers may be drinking but the driver is not. The law bans the mere presence of an open container in the vehicle, however.

"It's going to be interesting for a while," Anderson said. "There's going to have to be a lot of common sense judgment calls for a while."

Justice of the Peace Gary Hicks agreed that good judgment will be required by law enforcement officers, especially when deciding whether or not to pull over the driver of a vehicle for an open container violation.

"The deputies are going to have to make that call," he said.

Some mistakes will inevitably be made, Hicks said.

"Once it's determined it's not an alcoholic beverage, it's 'Thank you, have a nice day and buckle up,'" he said.

Whether or not an open container violation alone will be enough probable cause to start an investigation into whether the driver is under the influence of alcohol — a much more serious offense — will probably be up to the courts to decide, Hicks said.

While most other states have similar laws, "it is going to be new to Montana," Hicks said. "Like any new law it requires some settling time."

Hicks said the new law will be a topic of discussion at a judges' conference he will be attending next week in Billings.

"I think it's a good law," he said. "Because the days of driving down the road and drinking should be over."