The law surrounding drinking alcohol in public is often misunderstood which was highlighted by a recent case of mine: Attorney Jay Perry. An officer sought to arrest an individual for a violation of the “Open Container” law for drinking beer on a public sidewalk. However, the "Open Container" law (T.C.A. 55-10-416) only applies to the driver of a motor vehicle, meaning that under Tennessee law it is perfectly legal for any passenger in a car to consume alcohol. It is important to remember, however, that if travelling to Georgia or Alabama, you’d better finish that drink before crossing the state line. Both of those states outlaw anyone in an operating motor vehicle from consuming alcohol.
As for my case, was drinking on a public sidewalk against the law? There is a specific criminal prohibition on drinking on the grounds of a public school “having any of the grades kindergarten through twelve (K-12).” But there is no general law in Tennessee prohibiting drinking in public. However, don’t take to the sidewalks quite yet. There are many municipal ordinances that make such behavior illegal. For example, here in Chattanooga the city code states:
(b) It shall be unlawful for any person to drink or consume any alcoholic beverage or
beer or have an open container of alcoholic beverage or beer in or on any of the following places:
(1) public street, alley, avenue, highway;
(2) public sidewalk;
(3) public park;
(4) public school ground;
(5) any other public place;
(6) teen social clubs, as defined in Chapter 11 of this Code; and
(7) any parking lot held open to use by the public.
But wait, what about all of the great Chattanooga events, i.e. Nightfall, Brewfest, Riverbend, where beer is clearly sold (and consumed) in a public place? Well fortunately, the city code also contains an exception for events where a temporary beer permit has been obtained. So, in the end it appears that there are many times/places where you may legally drink in public but apparently not on the sidewalk.