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Closing A Loophole In The State's Open Container Law

Johnson City News and Neighbor

It's illegal to drink and drive in Tennessee. It's perfectly legal to drink and ride shotgun. That second part, often called the "pass the bottle" exemption, is what state Senator Jon Lundberg has been trying to undo for about ten years. Each time, the Bristol Republican has seen his effort fail.

"I haven't heard any good arguments [against closing the loophole]. The closest I've heard is, 'that's a liberty I have to do what I want to do in my car,'" Lundberg told WUOT's Brandon Hollingsworth. "And there is a certain amount of validity to that. You don't want to take away anyone's individual liberties. But often, the case is that's not the passenger, but the driver that's drinking."

This year, Lundberg's fortunes may change. The passenger exemption puts limitations on an estimated $18 million a year in federal funding. Eliminating the exemption would allow the state to use the money without restrictions, and Governor Bill Haslam wants it spent on highway infrastructure projects.

Some district attorneys across the state say that could create another problem, because for now, a significant chunk of the $18 million ends up in their offices. It pays for drunk driving prosecution, police overtime for DUI patrols and training programs. Losing that money would be detrimental to DUI prosecution efforts, the district attorneys say.

"I think that's a false premise," Lundberg says. "Because this legislation passes, does that mean [DUI programs are] gone? No."

Lundberg says the DUI programs can be funded out of the state budget instead. He admits there's no guarantee that will happen, but he says discarding the "pass the bottle" exemption is too good an idea to scrap over the funding question.

Sen. Lundberg spoke with Brandon Hollingsworth on Wednesday, February 15. The conversation aired Friday, February 17.