Open Container Laws in California

California “Open Container” Laws Vehicle Code sections 23221-23229 VC

Commonly known as the California “Open Container” Laws Vehicle Code sections 23221-23229 VC state that it is illegal for a person to be operating a automobile while in possession of an opened alcoholic beverage container, whether it has been consumed or not. Charges pertaining to the California Open Container Laws are normally considered infractions with the punishment being a maximum fine of $250. Individuals who are under the age of 21 and are caught violating this particular law can face a possible misdemeanor charge. This also brings with it a maximum fine of $1,000 in addition to upwards of six months in jail. This pertains to both drivers and passengers of an automobile who are under the state mandated age of 21.

Several legal defenses can be used to fight these particular charges. A few of the most commonly considered are those where individuals are occupants of a commercial vehicle, such as a city bus, limo or taxi; law enforcement officers had no “probable cause” to stop the automobile; an illegal search and seizure resulted in the discovery of the open container and the open container was located in the trunk or bed of the vehicle in question.

This article will detail California's Open Container Laws and also address the following:

  1. Laws Pertaining to Open Containers in California: Vehicle Code 23221-23229 VC
  2. Legal Defenses Associated with Open Container LawsPenalties, Punishment and Sentencing
    1. Alcohol was located in the trunk of the car
    2. Alcohol was found in a bus, taxi, camper or limo
    3. No probable cause
    4. Container was discovered during an illegal search and seizure
  3. Related Offenses and Charges
    1. Vehicle Code 23152 VC California's law against driving under the influence
    2. Penal Code 647 (f) PC California's drunk in public law
    3. Vehicle Code 23222 (b) California's law against driving in possession of marijuana

                        1.1 Pertaining to minors: Vehicle Code 23224 VC

If you would like more information or have any questions pertaining to the above laws, violations and possible punishments contact California Justice Law Group.

1. California Laws Pertaining to Open Containers: Vehicle Code 23221-23229 VC

Several laws in the California Vehicle Code pertain to the legality of driving or riding in a vehicle with an open container, bottle, can or otherwise that contains or contained an alcoholic beverage. The Vehicle Code includes the following:

Vehicle Code 23221 VC – consuming an alcoholic beverage in a car or vehicle,

Vehicle Code 23222 (a) VC – having an open container (can, bottle, etc.) in a car or vehicle,

Vehicle Code 23224 VC – having an open container (can, bottle, etc.) in a car or vehicle by a person under the legal age of 21,

Vehicle Code 23225 VC – storing of open containers within the trunk of a vehicle,

Vehicle Code 23229 VC – exceptions for commercial vehicles which include bus, taxi, limo, camper, etc. and,

Vehicle Code 23229.1 VC - the prohibiting of storage of alcohol on-board for-hire vehicles when carrying passengers who are under the legal age of 21.

The term “open” denotes any beverage container where a seal has been broken, previously opened or consumed either partially or completely. The top does not have to be off of the container for it to be deemed “open”. Many bottles and containers can have lids and caps relapsed once they have been opened.

It makes no difference who is in possession of the beverage when a vehicle is stopped. The act of having an open container in the vehicle while it is in operation is a violation of the law whether the person is a passenger of the operator of said vehicle. In any case, to be convicted of the violating the open container laws, the prosecuting attorney must prove without doubt that you were in possession of the container.

When there are more than one or two passengers in a vehicle, this can be extremely difficult to accomplish. To obtain a valid conviction, proof must be available that you were in control of and had possession of the container while in the vehicle. If the alcohol is being consumed in the vehicle, a passenger can be charged with violating California Vehicle Code 23221 VC, while a driver will be charged with driving under the influence. (Section 4.1 of the Vehicle Code)

1.1 Regarding minors: Vehicle Code 23224 VC

The legal age to be able to consume alcoholic beverages is 21 years of age. If you are under 21 and found to be consuming alcohol you will be in violation of Vehicle Code 23224 VC. The violations pertaining to this law include knowingly operating a vehicle that contains alcoholic beverages, either opened or unopened, or knowingly being a passenger in a vehicle that contains either opened or unopened alcoholic beverages.

Valid legal defenses to the above mentioned charges for individuals under the age of 21 would include being in the presence of a parent/legal guardian, following instructions by a parent/legal guardian as to what to do with the alcohol and the containers it came in and were in a vehicle (either driving or as a passenger) that was transporting alcohol or alcohol containers as part of the job description for their place of employment.

As the registered owner of the car and none of the above defenses could be applied to your case, the courts would have the right to impound your car for up to 30 days, depending on the severity of the offense. All charges, citations and violations pertaining to this section could subject the defendant to a California misdemeanor which is punishable by up to a maximum of $1,000 fine and up up to six months in jail, in addition to a one year suspension of your driving privileges. If you do not have a valid driver's license you may incur a one year delay in being able to apply for it.

2. Legal Defenses

An attorney that specializes in criminal defense law can represent you using a variety of defenses that are legal in California. Defenses include those that are generalized to cover a variety of criminal acts, while others are specific and focus on the nature of the violation, in this case possession of alcohol or an alcoholic container. Each situation is different and must be investigated on its own merit. 

2.1 Situations involving open, alcoholic containers found in the trunk of the vehicle

No California laws are being violated if alcohol is found in the trunk of a vehicle. It is also not illegal to have an open container in the trunk of a vehicle. If the vehicle has no trunk, but an open alcohol container was found in an unoccupied area of the vehicle such as a truck bed or hatch area of an SUV or in a container that was locked, all charges should be dropped. An individual recycling a bag full of beer cans stored in the trunk of a car or bed of a truck would be treated much differently than an individual who had several open beer cans strewn about the interior of a vehicle.

2.2 Situations involving alcohol found in a commercial use vehicle, such as a bus, camper, taxi or limo

Individuals using a commercial vehicle such as a bus, taxi, limo, etc., cannot be charged with violation of open container laws. They are exempt under California's open container laws. Passengers of such vehicles are allowed to drink while on board, where drivers and operators are not. Commercial vehicles are also known as vehicles "for hire".

In cases where passengers under the age of 21 are present, however, the California open container laws apply and will be enforced. Open alcohol containers are not allowed in vehicles where under age passengers are allowed to be transported. All alcohol containers must be properly stored. Limousines are an exception due to the fact that all alcohol is kept in a locked container at all times.

2.3 A law enforcement officer had no probably cause to stop or detain a vehicle 

Individuals who were operating a vehicle in violation of the Open Container Laws of California could have their charges dismissed if it was found the officer acted illegally during the traffic stop. In order for a police officer or other member of law enforcement to legally stop you, they must have probably cause.

In California, probable cause is a reasonable belief that a crime is taking place or an illegal act has occurred. The government implemented the use of probable cause to protect the public from unnecessary violations of privacy on behalf of law enforcement. Specific facts and actions must be present to make them believe that you may be doing something illegal.

Police officers that stop an individual who violates a traffic law such as speeding or running a stop sign or light have probable cause to stop them. They would also give the person a ticket concerning the infraction. If, during the stop, the police officer noticed an open container, citing a person for that offense would be valid. If the officer had no legal reason to detain the driver, open containers noticed by them could not be used to charge the driver with any violations.

2.4. An open container was uncovered during an illegal search and seizure of a vehicle

Any container, open or unopened, found during an illegal search of a automobile cannot be used to charge the driver or the passenger for any valid crime or violation. You could not be found guilty due to the officer's illegal search of the car and subsequent seizure of evidence.. California Search and Seizure Laws are very clear on when a person or their vehicle and other personal property can be searched. An illegal search and seizure is one that occurs when there is no probably cause, you were not arrested or detained due to another violation or you did not consent to the search of your car. If any of these situations occur, a good criminal defense attorney can get all of your charges dramatically reduced or completely dismissed.

An example of an illegal search would be if you were in a vehicle that was parked at your home. Just because the vehicle is visible to a police officer who is outside of your property line and happens to see you drink a beer while sitting in the front seat, it doesn't give them the right to come on your property and search your vehicle. Any items found in the car during such a search would be deemed inadmissible due to the illegal search and seizure law. First and foremost, the officer cannot detain you on your own private property. He or she must wait until you have left your property and entered a public street or alley before stopping you and beginning a search of your vehicle. As with any other charge, the officer must have probable cause to stop you or the search would be illegal.

3. Penalties, Punishment and Sentencing

California infraction charges do not result in jail time if committed. California Open Container laws fall under this category. While no jail time is mandatory, they do carry a punishment of up to $250 in fines. Individuals who are under the legal age of 21 and caught in violation of these laws are the exception. In this case, it would be considered a California misdemeanor offense and carry with it the required penalties and sentence.

Although these infractions seem minor, they can dramatically affect your driving record. Points can be placed on your California DMV driving record, especially if they occur while you are driving. A DUI on top of an open container violation will definitely result in some form of punishment through the DMV and will more than likely, result in a mandatory jail sentence to be determined by the court. When a minor receives a charge for an alcohol related offense, especially one involving alcoholic beverages or open containers, their driving record can reflect the infractions for several years to come. 

A minor who is found guilty of possessing alcohol in a public place can be cited for a violation of California Business & Professions Code 25662 BPC. Whether they are in a vehicle or in any other public place, the violation could result in a fine, community service and/or a one-year loss of the minor's driving privileges.

4. Related Offenses

California has several laws that are similar to the Open Container Law. Many of these related laws are charged in lieu of an open container violation or in addition to it. Three of the most common are:

4.1. California's Vehicle Code 23152 VC  law against driving under the influence

California's law against driving under the influence makes it illegal to drive a vehicle while under the influence of alcoholic beverages (DUI). Individuals who are in a possession of an open container during a DUI arrest have little recourse to follow. It can also impact whatever sentence the judge decides to impose.

A person with no prior DUI offenses normally will not get jail time out of first time DUI. If they are found to be in possession of an open container during the rest, they will more than likely be forced to spend at least 48 hours in jail.

4.2. California Penal Code 647 (f) drunk in public law

In California, you are in violation of the drunk in public law if you are so drunk that you are unable to act in a safe manner towards yourself or others or you interfere with or prevent others from using public property such as sidewalks, streets, etc.

4.3. California Vehicle Code 23222 (b)  law against driving in possession of marijuana

Vehicle Code 23222 (b) deals specifically with prohibiting driving while in possession of marijuana, much like Vehicle Code 23222 (a) prohibits driving with an open alcohol container. Driving in possession of marijuana is considered a lesser charge than driving with an open container. If the driver is apprehended with less than an ounce of marijuana it is considered an infraction and a maximum of $100 in fines is imposed.

Individuals who feel they would benefit from legal advice from a qualified criminal defense attorney should contact the California Justice Law Group.

Get in touch with the California Justice Law Group if you have any questions concerning California's Open Container Laws and any of the related charges associated with it. Our criminal defense attorneys will keep your information confidential and help you get the representation you need to win your case.