What is California's Open Container Law?

Ignorance of the law is never an excuse for breaking it, especially when it comes to DUI laws. Most drivers know it’s illegal to drink any type of alcohol while driving. However, not everyone realizes that having an open container of alcohol in your vehicle — even if no one is consuming it — is also illegal.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, drunk driving kills one person every 39 minutes in the United States. DUI laws are intended to help reduce drunk-driving accidents. California lawmakers take DUI violations seriously, and the law is clear on what does and doesn’t constitute an open container. 

What’s Considered an Open Container in California?

Per California’s Vehicle Code Sections 23111-23229 VC, an open container includes any bottle, flask, can, glass, or other container that has alcohol in it.

“Open” doesn’t mean the lid is off or the cork has been removed. If the seal on a container of alcohol has been broken or the contents are partially consumed, it’s legally considered an open container. 

The location of the container also matters. You may transport open alcohol containers in the trunk of the car or another locked compartment.

For example, if you order a bottle of wine while dining out but don’t finish it all, you can place the bottle in the trunk to take it home. Because no one in the car can access the bottle, there isn’t a legal issue.

The specific laws that relate to open containers in California include:

  • Vehicle Code 23221 VC states that it’s a crime for a driver or passenger to drink alcohol or consume any marijuana product while driving on a public road 
  • Vehicle Code 23222 VC makes it a crime to possess an open container of alcohol or cannabis products inside a vehicle
  • Vehicle Code 23224 VC says it’s a crime for anyone under 21 to drive or ride in a car with an unopened container of alcohol except in certain circumstances
  • Vehicle Code 23225 VC clarifies that storing open containers in a locked compartment or trunk out of reach from drivers and passengers is permissible 
  • Vehicle Code 23226 VC makes it a crime to store open containers in the glove compartment or any other space that’s within reach of the driver 
  • Vehicle Code 23229 VC lists the exceptions to the open container laws as they pertain to passengers riding in vehicles for hire, like a limousine, taxi, or Lyft 

Since the legalization of recreational cannabis in California, open container laws also apply to carrying marijuana in a vehicle. 

Open Container Penalties

The penalty for being caught with an open container is relatively small compared to other DUI-related infractions. The driver will be issued a ticket, receive points on their driver’s license, and must pay a fine of up to $250. However, additional considerations can make open container violations more serious. 

Consequences for people under the age of 21 (the legal drinking age in California) may include:

  • Fines up to $1,000
  • Suspended driving privileges for up to 12 months
  • Court-ordered community service
  • Possible criminal charges
  • Up to six months in jail

Regardless of age, if an open container violation leads to the death of another person, the offender will be fined and ordered to perform community service. 

What to Do if You Receive an Open Container Violation

You can easily avoid getting an open container violation by making sure all open alcohol and cannabis products are safely stowed in the trunk of your vehicle. If you receive a citation, cooperate with law enforcement and accept the ticket without argument. 

Most drivers are content to simply pay the fee and put the issue to rest. Some are concerned about having points on their record, but there are steps you can take to have traffic violation points removed. Others believe they’re innocent of violating the law and prefer to have their day in court.

Avoiding Open Container Penalties

Just because you receive a violation for driving with an open container of alcohol or cannabis doesn’t mean you’re powerless to take action.

There are several legitimate strategies criminal defense attorneys can use to help clients avoid penalties for violating California’s open container laws. If you wish to contest the ticket, consider speaking with an experienced attorney to better understand your options.

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