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Open Container Laws in California

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Jaya Anandjit
· 4 min read
If you have an open container of alcohol in the driver’s or passenger’s areas of your car in
California
, you will face a fine of up to $250. Open containers of alcohol must be kept in the trunk—but drivers under 21 cannot have any alcohol in their cars whatsoever. 
  • California’s Vehicle Code prohibits the presence of open alcohol containers or cannabis products in vehicles, unless they are in the trunk.
  • Drivers under 21 cannot have alcohol present in their vehicle—open or closed—unless they are accompanied by a responsible adult and the alcohol is legally stowed.
  • If a police officer finds an open container in your vehicle, you could be charged with a DUI offense. 
  • A DUI arrest could raise your car insurance rates by an average of 170% in California. 

What is the open container law in California?

California’s
Vehicle Code Sections 23221
to
23229
outline the extensive guidelines surrounding open containers in cars in the state of California. In short, it is illegal to have any open container of alcohol in the passenger compartment of your car in California—unless the open container is in the trunk of the vehicle. 
The Vehicle Code affirms that an open container of alcohol in the driver’s area or passenger area is prohibited whether the vehicle is on a California highway or on California lands. Here are a few notable highlights from the California Vehicle Code:
  • Vehicle Code 23221 VC: Drivers and any passengers cannot drink alcohol or consume marijuana in a vehicle while on public roads or highways.
  • Vehicle Code 23222 VC: Drivers and passengers cannot hold an open container of alcohol or marijuana in a car.
  • Vehicle Code 23225 VC: Open containers can be stowed in the vehicle’s trunk.
Under
California’s DUI laws
, you could be charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs for a violation of these statutes. If you’re found to be drunk in public, you could also be charged with a misdemeanor under
California Penal Code 647

What counts as an open container?

California’s vehicle code states that an open container is any receptacle of alcohol or cannabis that meets the following criteria:
  • Glasses, cups, or flasks with alcohol or cannabis products
  • A bottle with a broken seal, even if it has not been opened and sealed with a cork
  • Empty bottles, cans, or containers that once had alcohol or cannabis products
  • A bottle or container that has some of its contents partially removed
This means you can be ticketed for driving around with anything from an open can of hard kombucha to a half-finished bottle of cabernet. 

You can transport alcohol if you do it correctly

According to
Section 23225
of California’s Vehicle Code, you can keep an open container of alcohol in the trunk of your car. 
That means you’re good to go if you want to lug around an opened bottle of whiskey for safe keeping—you just need to be sure it always stays in the trunk of your vehicle. 
Holding alcohol or cannabis products in your glove compartment will not exempt you from being charged, and you will likely receive an infraction if the container is open. 
Other exceptions to California’s open container laws include: 
  • Drivers operating vehicles on private lands (ex. private property or dirt roads) are able to carry open containers in their vehicles.
  • Passengers in buses, taxi cabs, limousines, or campers are permitted to carry and consume alcohol, as long as the driver does not partake in consumption.
Key Takeaway An open container of alcohol in your car is prohibited in California unless the container is in the trunk of your vehicle. 

Penalties for violating California’s open container law

For the most part, an open container violation in California is an
infraction
. The maximum fine is typically $250. 
Drivers and passengers under 21 years of age could be looking at misdemeanor charges for any alcohol container found in the vehicle—even if the container is unopened. If you are under 21 and found driving with alcohol in your car, you could face up to 6 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. 

What if you are found with an open container of alcohol and fail a breathalyzer test?

The penalties for driving under the influence in California are more severe. If you are 21 or over and found guilty of driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% or higher, you’ll be looking at the following penalties. 
Driving under the influence in California
License suspension
Fines
Jail time
DUI school
Ignition interlock device (IID)
First offense
4-month license suspension
Up to $3,600
Up to 6 months
3 months
Possible
Second offense (within 10 years)
1-year license suspension
U to $4,000
Up to one year
18 to 30 months
Mandatory
Drivers who refuse a breathalyzer test will also face a 1- to 2-year
California driver’s license suspension
.
If you are under 21 and are found driving with a BAC of 0.01% or higher, you may lose your driving privileges with a 1-year driver’s license suspension for your first offense. 
Keep in mind: Not only are these penalties unfortunate, but having a bad driving record will raise your insurance rates significantly. Car insurance providers are able to keep your premiums lower when you have a
clean driving record
, but as soon as you get points on your record, they can raise your rates in order to compensate for your risky driving. 
MORE: The traffic tickets that have the greatest effect on your car insurance rates

Common defenses for open container violations in California

If you were ticketed for an open container violation, you may be able to fight the ticket and avoid points on your driving record or fines. If you’re hoping to fight your violation, it’s a good idea to reach out to a criminal defense attorney, DUI defense attorney, or California traffic ticket law firm for a free consultation. 
Commonly, open container tickets are dismissed if the driver can prove the following:
  • The open container was in the vehicle’s trunk or a locked compartment.
  • The container was unopened and sealed.
  • You were on private property at the time of the ticketing.
  • You were a passenger in a vehicle for hire (ex. Taxi, limo, or bus).
  • The open container was not in your possession but you were ticketed (ex. The open container belonged to another passenger in the car).
  • The police violated California’s search and seizure laws by performing an illegal search on the vehicle without probable cause, consent, or citing another violation.
  • The police did not have probable cause to pull you over.
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FAQs

A driver or passenger in possession of an open container of alcohol in California can be charged.
Denying a breathalyzer in California results in a 1-year license suspension (for your first offense).
Under the California Vehicle Code, passengers are prohibited from drinking alcohol in a car. It is illegal for the driver or any passengers to drink alcohol in a vehicle, and any person who does so can be charged by the California police. 
However, passengers can consume alcohol and hold open containers in the following vehicles:
  • In-hire vehicles: Buses, taxis, limousines
  • Large motor vehicles: Campers or “housecars”
California law states that drivers and passengers must refrain from drinking any beverage with .5% or more ABV. Though all non-alcoholic beers contain a small amount of alcohol, most contain less than .05% ABV, so you can likely drink it while driving in California.
Keep in mind: California prohibits open containers of alcoholic beverages—like beer and wine—while driving a vehicle, so while your non-alcoholic beverage is technically legal, that won’t save you from having to explain yourself to a police officer or possibly even in court if you’re pulled over while drinking it. 
A ticket for an open container in California is typically $250. Drivers under 21 who are found driving with alcohol in their car could face up to 6 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
Open container charges in California are infractions, not a criminal offense. These misdemeanors are typically accompanied by a $250 fine, and drivers could get points on their DMV driving record.
Drivers under 21 years old who are found with alcohol or cannabis products in their vehicle will face the following penalties:
  • $1,000 maximum fine
  • Mandatory community service
  • One-year driver’s license suspension
No, you cannot drink in public in California. If you are caught drinking or holding an open container of alcohol in public, you could be given a ticket by law enforcement. 
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