The state of California has laws related to driving with open containers of alcohol in a vehicle and for consuming alcoholic beverages while driving. They are primarily used to prevent drunk driving and keep the roads safe.
California's open container laws are defined under Vehicle Code Sections 23221–23229 VC. Simply put, they make it a crime to have an open container of alcohol in the car or to drink any alcoholic beverage while driving, such as beer, wine, liquor, etc. Further, these laws outlaw marijuana in the vehicle.
Vehicle Code 23222(a) says: “(a) A person shall not have in their possession on their person, while driving a motor vehicle upon a highway or on lands, as described in subdivision (c) of Section 23220, a bottle, can, or other receptacles, containing an alcoholic beverage which has been opened, or a seal broken, or the contents of which have been partially removed.”
Subsection (b) (1) says, “except authorized by law, a person who has in their possession… while driving a motor vehicle upon a highway… a receptacle containing cannabis or cannabis products, as defined by Section 11018.1 of the Health and Safety Code, which has been opened or has a seal broken, or loose cannabis flower not in a container, is guilty of an infraction….”
In other words, it's unlawful to have any “open” container of alcohol in your vehicle, whether you are drinking it or if there is no more alcohol in the container. If police officers discover any open container in your car when you are pulled over, you could be charged under VC 23222.
Under this law, several items are considered a “container,” such as a bottle, can, cup, flasks, opened wine bottles, and even a bottle with the seal removed or empty cans under the car seat.
Of note is that the term “open” in the context of the law does not mean there is no top on the drink but that it has been opened, has a broken seal, or has been partially or entirely consumed. An open container is an infraction where you will generally receive a citation unless there is underage possession of alcohol.
The penalties for California's open container laws typically include a fine of up to $250 and points on your DMV record. In addition, if you are under the age of 21, then you could face misdemeanor charges and a one-year license suspension. Let's review these state laws in more detail below.
What Do the Laws Say?
As noted, Vehicle Code 23221-23229 VC covers most situations with open containers of alcohol in the vehicle. Under the law, an "open container" is any can, bottle, or other open receptacle that has a broken seal or has been partially or entirely consumed. The specific laws say the following:
- Vehicle Code 23221 VC makes it a crime for the driver or passenger to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana in the car while on a public road;
- Vehicle Code 23222 VC makes it a crime to have possession of an open container of alcohol or cannabis in the vehicle;
- Vehicle Code 23224 VC makes it a crime for anyone under 21 to drive or be a passenger in a car containing open or unopened alcohol unless under parental supervision or lawfully transporting it as part of their job;
- Vehicle Code 23225 VC permits the storage of open containers in a trunk or locked compartment away from drivers and passengers;
- Vehicle Code 23226 VC makes it a crime to store open containers in the glove compartment or other space within reach;
- Vehicle Code 23229 VC lists exceptions to the open container rules for passengers riding in vehicles for hire, such as a taxi, etc.;
- Vehicle Code 23229.1 VC makes it a crime for in-hire vehicles to store alcohol when transporting passengers under 21.
Related crimes for the open container laws include Vehicle Code 23152 VC driving under the influence and Penal Code 647(f) PC drunk in public.
What Are the Penalties?
For an adult, if you violate an open container law, it's an infraction, and you will receive a ticket. The maximum fine for an open container violation is $250; you could get points on your DMV record.
For someone under 21, having alcohol or marijuana in the vehicle is a misdemeanor crime, and you will be facing the following penalties:
- A fine of up to $1000;
- Community service; and
- One-year suspension of your driving privileges.
What Are the Defenses for Open Container Violations?
If you received a ticket for an open container violation, there are several possible strategies a California criminal defense lawyer can use to avoid fines and points on your record.
Perhaps we can argue that the open container was in the trunk or a locked compartment, which means you would not be violating Vehicle Code 23222 VC.
Perhaps we can argue that the container was unopened. Maybe you were on private property. Open container laws only apply to public roadways. If you were on private property when the police found the open container, you did not violate the law.
Perhaps we can argue that you were a passenger in a vehicle for hire. As noted, California law permits passengers in taxi cabs, limos, and other related vehicles to have open containers and consume alcohol.
Perhaps we can argue that the open container belonged to another person in the vehicle, as the container must be in your possession or under your control. Suppose you were a passenger in a vehicle with numerous other people with an open container. In that case, you should not receive a citation.
Perhaps we can argue that there was no probable cause. Suppose the police lacked probable cause to pull you over on a traffic stop, such as speeding. In that case, we can challenge the open container citation.
Perhaps we can argue that there was an Illegal search and seizure. For example, suppose the police violated California's search and seizure laws and found an open container. In that case, the open container citation could be dismissed.
If you or a family member was accused of violating an open container law in California, contact our law firm to review the case details and legal options. We offer a free case consultation via phone or the contact form. The Hedding Law Firm is based in Los Angeles, California.