California has particular laws regarding driving with open containers of alcohol in the car and consuming alcoholic beverages while driving. These laws are designed to prevent drunk driving and keep the roads safe for everyone.
Open container laws in California are found in Vehicle Code Sections 23221–23229 VC. These laws make it illegal to have an open container of alcohol in the vehicle or to drink any alcoholic beverage while driving. This includes beer, wine, liquor, spritzers, etc. The law also outlaws marijuana in the car.
Vehicle Code 23222(a) VC says: “Nobody shall have in their possession on their person while driving a motor vehicle upon a highway or lands, any bottle, can, or another receptacle, containing any alcoholic beverage which has been opened, or a seal broken, or the contents of which have been partially removed.”
In other words, in California, it is illegal to have any “open” container of alcohol in your vehicle, whether you are drinking it or if there is no longer any alcohol in the container. If law enforcement officers discover any open container in your car when they pull you over, you could face charges under VC 23222.
Many items are considered a “container” under this law, including cups, glasses, flasks, opened wine bottles, a bottle with the seal removed, and empty cans or bottles under the car seat.
Readers should note that “open” does not mean there is no top on the beverage; instead, it has been opened, has a broken seal, or is partially or entirely consumed. California's open container laws are infraction charges where you will generally receive a citation. The exception is underage possession of alcohol.
The penalties for violating California's open container laws are relatively minor, but they can still significantly impact your life. You may be fined up to $250 and get points on your DMV record.
Under 21, you may be convicted of a misdemeanor and possibly face a one-year license suspension. Our California criminal defense lawyers will examine these laws further below.
Open Container Laws Explained
Vehicle Code 23221-23229 VC effectively addresses all situations with open containers of alcohol in the car. For purposes of the law, an "open container" consists of any can, bottle, or another open receptacle has its seal broken or has been partially or entirely consumed. The specific laws are as follows:
- Vehicle Code 23221 VC – makes it illegal for the driver or any passenger to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana in the car while on a public roadway.
- Vehicle Code 23222 VC – makes it illegal to possess an open container of alcohol or cannabis in the car.
- Vehicle Code 23224 VC – makes it a misdemeanor for persons under 21 to drive or be a passenger in a vehicle containing alcohol (open or unopened) UNLESS under proper parental supervision or lawfully transporting it as part of their job.
- Vehicle Code 23225 VC – allows for storage of open containers in a trunk or locked compartment away from drivers and passengers.
- Vehicle Code 23226 VC – makes it illegal to store open containers in the glove compartment or other compartments within the driver's or passengers' reach.
- Vehicle Code 23229 VC – makes exceptions to the open container rules for passengers riding in vehicles for hire (e.g., taxicabs, limousines)
- Vehicle Code 23229.1 VC – makes it illegal for in-hire vehicles to store alcohol when transporting passengers under 21.
What Are the Punishments?
For adults, violating any of these open container laws constitutes an infraction—meaning the officer will write a ticket. The maximum fine for an open container violation is $250; you may get points on your DMV record.
For minors under 21, the penalties are more significant. Having alcohol or marijuana in the car constitutes a misdemeanor offense. If you are under 21 and are convicted of violating these laws, penalties may include:
- Fines up to $1000;
- Mandatory community service; and
- Suspension of your driving privileges for up to one year.
What Are the Common Defenses for Open Container Violations?
If you're unfairly ticketed for an open container violation, you have several possible defenses at your disposal to fight it and possibly avoid fines and points. Some common defenses to open container violations are discussed below.
Perhaps the open container was in the trunk or a locked compartment, which means you are not violating Vehicle Code 23222 VC. Perhaps the container was unopened. If the police officer cannot prove that the container was opened, you have a strong defense against an open container charge.
Maybe you were on private property. Open container laws pertain to public highways and roadways. If you were on private property when the police officers found the open container, you haven't violated these laws.
Perhaps you were a passenger in a vehicle for hire. California law allows passengers in cabs, limos, etc., to have open containers and consume alcohol. Unless you were the driver, you could fight the citation by showing you were in a vehicle for hire.
Perhaps the container belonged to someone else in the car. For the open container violation to apply, the container must be in your possession or under your control. If you were a passenger in a vehicle with numerous other passengers, for example, and someone else had the open container, that container was not in your possession, and you should not be cited.
Maybe we can make an argument there was no probable cause. If the police did not have probable cause to pull you over (e.g., speeding, erratic driving), you could fight to dismiss your open container citation.
Perhaps we can argue there was an Illegal search and seizure. Suppose the police violated California's search and seizure laws in discovering the open container, e.g., by searching the car without consent, probable cause, or citing you for another violation. In that case, the open container citation should be dismissed.
If you or a family member has been accused of violating California's open container laws, contact our law firm to review the details and discuss legal options.
Eisner Gorin LLP has two office locations in Los Angeles County, and we provide legal representation across the state. You can contact us for a case review by phone or use the contact form.