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Drivers in California often have questions regarding alcohol and whether or not they are allowed to have alcohol in their vehicle and in what capacity. While California has enacted a variety of laws designed to discourage drunk driving, the law does permit drivers who are 21 or over to have sealed alcoholic beverages in their vehicle, but not open containers. California’s “open container” laws include California Vehicle Code Section 23221 (drinking in a vehicle), California Vehicle Code Section 23222(a) (possessing an open container of alcohol in a vehicle) and California Vehicle Code Section 23224 (possessing an open container of alcohol in a vehicle by someone under 21).
An “open container” is not only alcohol that does not have a top or seal, but also includes alcoholic beverages that have been opened, have a broken seal or appear to be partially consumed.
For most drivers, the open container violations described above are infractions that are punishable by a fine of up to $250, plus penalties and assessments. However, those under the age of 21 who are caught with an open container of alcohol in a vehicle can be charged with a misdemeanor level offense. Those convicted of this offense can be sentenced to complete community service, would have to pay expensive court fines and would lose their driving privileges for a full year. For those under 21, it is illegal to drive a car knowing that there is any alcoholic beverage inside (open or sealed), with certain exceptions pertaining to employment. It is also against the law to be a passenger in a vehicle while possessing alcohol.
Open container violations can sometimes be closely linked with DUI offenses. In many cases, the presence of an open container of alcohol will be used by police officers as justification for expanding a DUI investigation and ultimately arresting the driver for driving under the influence. Prosecutors and judges tend to look very harshly on DUI drivers who are found with open containers of alcohol in their vehicle. As a result, these drivers may face heightened penalties such as jail time, community service and/or labor or a longer drug and alcohol education program.
There are several exceptions to the open container laws. A person is allowed to store open containers of alcohol in the trunk of a vehicle. If the vehicle has no trunk, the driver would not be criminally liable if the alcohol was stored in a locked container within the vehicle or in an area not typically occupied by people, such as the bed of a pickup truck.
In addition, passengers or drivers in certain vehicles would be exempt from the open container restrictions. These include buses, taxis, campers and limousines. Those under the age of 21 would not be exempt from open container laws in these vehicles, as they are not permitted to possess alcohol legally under any circumstance. The sole exception would be limousines, which are allowed to have those under 21 in a vehicle with alcohol as long as the alcohol is stored in a locked compartment.