Open Container Laws in California
California’s “open container” laws are specified in Vehicle Code sections 23221 - 23229. These laws make it unlawful to drive with any open alcoholic beverage in a vehicle, except under a few specific circumstances which are spelled out by these laws.
It's important to note that it doesn’t matter if the driver or anyone else in the vehicle was actually drinking. The mere presence of a container that is open, has a broken seal, or has had its contents partially emptied, can potentially qualify as an offense under these laws.
California’s “open container” laws are specified under Vehicle Code sections 23221 – 23229. Basically, these statutes prohibit driving with any open alcoholic beverage in the vehicle, except under limited circumstances as defined by these laws. The beverage need not have been consumed for someone to be charged and convicted. These offenses are considered infractions, which is a step below a misdemeanor.
Elements of the crime
Open container laws include:
- 23221 VC – drinking alcohol in a vehicle.
- 23222(a) VC – possessing an open container in a vehicle.
- 23224 VC – possession of an open container in a vehicle by someone less than 21 years old.
- 23225 VC – specifies how open alcohol containers may be lawfully carried in a vehicle.
- 23226 VC – carrying open alcoholic containers in the vehicle’s passenger compartment.
- 23229 VC – permits transporting open alcohol containers in a licensed vehicle-for-hire if all passengers are 21 or older.
Under these statutes, “open” means that the beverage has:
- Been opened.
- A broken seal.
- Been partially emptied.
The fact that the beverage container is open in a vehicle is the key element of these offenses. It doesn’t matter if the driver or anyone else in the vehicle was actually drinking. However, if the driver was consuming an alcoholic beverage while operating the vehicle, he/she could potentially also be charged with DUI (23152 VC).
To secure a successful conviction, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was in possession of the open container. The container must be associated with a specific person, not merely found within the vehicle. If there is only one person in the vehicle, satisfying this element is relatively simple. But multiple passengers make establishing this crucial element more complicated.
How to legally transport open alcohol containers in a vehicle
California 23225 VC specifies the manner in which open alcohol containers may be lawfully carried in a vehicle. The containers must be carried in the trunk of the vehicle, or if the vehicle has no trunk – like a pick-up truck – they must be carried in an area not normally occupied by the driver or passengers, such as the cargo bed. It is important to note that this section specifically states that a glove compartment or utility compartment – such as a center console – is not a permissible area in which to carry an open container.
Penalties for open container violations
As mentioned, California’s open container laws are infractions. An offense is punishable by a maximum fine of $250, but out-of-pocket costs can easily exceed $1500 after penalties and assessments. And violations which involve underage possession of alcohol are subject to more serious penalties.
Conviction under one of California’s open container laws typically results in one point added to the defendant’s California DMV record. For drivers 18 or older, driving privileges may be revoked or suspended if an excessive number of points are accumulated within a certain time period:
- 4 points or more within 12 months.
- 6 points or more within 24 months.
- 8 points or more within 36 months.
Formulating an appropriate legal defense requires an assessment of the unique facts of a case, and a full understanding of applicable state law. Anyone charged with an offense should seek legal advice from a qualified attorney. Some of the defense strategies which may be available include:
- The alcohol beverage container was carried in accordance with 23225 VC; either secured in the vehicle’s trunk or in another area of the vehicle that is not normally occupied by people.
- The alcohol container was in a licensed taxi, limousine, or bus. Under 23229 VC, passengers in certain vehicles for hire, and the drivers of those vehicles, are exempt from California’s open container laws, as long as no minors are in the vehicle.
- The police officer lacked adequate probable cause to search the vehicle for open alcohol containers. If the search is successfully challenged and found to be unlawful, evidence seized during that search may not be used against the defendant in court.