Specific laws in California cover driving with open containers of alcohol in the car and consuming alcoholic beverages while driving, designed to prevent drunk driving.
These laws are codified in Vehicle Code Sections 23221–23229 VC. Simply put, they make it illegal to have an open container of alcohol in the car or drink an alcoholic beverage while driving. These laws cover beer, wine, liquor, and even marijuana in the vehicle.
A “container” could include a can of beer, a bottle of wine, cups, glasses, flasks, a bottle with the seal removed, and empty cans or bottles under the seat.
Vehicle Code 23222(a) says: “Nobody shall have in their possession on their person, while driving a motor vehicle upon a highway or lands, any bottle, can, or other receptacle, containing any alcoholic beverage which has been opened, or a seal broken, or the contents of which have been partially removed.”
It's illegal to have any “open” container of alcohol in your car, even if the container is empty. You do not have to be drinking alcohol. Suppose police observe an open container in your car during a routine traffic stop. In that case, you could be charged under Vehicle Code 23222.
Notably, “open” means the container has been opened, has a broken seal, or partially or entirely consumed. The open container laws are infraction charges, meaning you will normally receive a citation unless it involves underage possession of alcohol.
What Does the Law Say?
Vehicle Code 23221-23229 VC covers all types of situations with open containers of alcohol in the car, and most are infractions. The specific laws are as follows:
- Vehicle Code 23221 VC makes it unlawful for a driver or passenger to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana in the car on a public road;
- Vehicle Code 23222 VC makes it unlawful to possess an open container of alcohol or cannabis in the car;
- Vehicle Code 23224 VC makes it a misdemeanor for a driver or passenger under 21 to have alcohol 21 (open or unopened) without a parent unless they are lawfully transporting it as part of their job;
- Vehicle Code 23225 VC cover storing open containers in a trunk or locked compartment away from drivers and passenger;
- Vehicle Code 23226 VC covers storing open containers in the glove compartment or within the driver's or passengers' reach;
- Vehicle Code 23229 VC covers an exception to the open container rules for passengers riding in vehicles for hire, such as a taxi;
- Vehicle Code 23229.1 VC makes it unlawful for in-hire vehicles to store alcohol when transporting someone under 21.
What Are the Penalties?
For adults, violations of the open container laws are an infraction, meaning you will get a ticket. The fine for an open container violation is $250; you might get points on your DMV record.
For a minor under the age of 21, having alcohol or marijuana in the car is a misdemeanor crime, which carries the following penalties:
- A fine of up to $1000;
- Mandatory community service; and
- Driver's license suspension for up to one year.
What Are the Defenses?
If you received a ticket for an open container violation, you have some possible defenses to fight it and avoid fines and points, as discussed below.
Perhaps we can argue that the open container was in the trunk or a locked compartment, which would mean you did not violate Vehicle Code 23222 VC.
Perhaps we can argue that the container was unopened or that you were on private property. Open container laws only apply to public highways and roadways.
Perhaps we can argue that you were a passenger in a vehicle for hire. Under the law, passengers in cabs, limos, etc., are allowed to have open containers and consume alcohol.
Perhaps we can argue that the container belonged to someone else in the car. The container must be in your possession or under your control.
Perhaps we can argue that there was no probable cause to pull you over, such as speeding. On the other hand, maybe we can say there was an Illegal search and seizure.
Contact us to review the details and legal options if you were accused of violating California's open container laws. In addition, we offer a free case evaluation. Cron, Israels & Stark is located in Los Angeles, CA.