Possession of Alcohol in a Vehicle by a Person under 21
Vehicle Code 23224 VC

California Vehicle Code 23224 VC makes it a crime for a person under the age of twenty-one (21) to drive a motor vehicle containing an alcoholic beverage or to possess an alcoholic beverage while riding in a motor vehicle.1

But California's underage possession of alcohol in a vehicle law does make an exception for people who are transporting alcohol for work, or are under the supervision of or acting at the request of a responsible adult.2

Beer-bottle
You can be charged under VC 23224 for transporting or possessing alcohol in a vehicle even if the container is not open.

VC 23224 is closely associated with and is often charged along with California's under-21 DUI laws (especially Vehicle Code 23136 VC zero tolerance underage DUI).

Vehicle Code 23224 VC reads: "(a) No person under the age of 21 years shall knowingly drive any motor vehicle carrying any alcoholic beverage, unless the person is accompanied by a parent, responsible adult relative, any other adult designated by the parent, or legal guardian for the purpose of transportation of an alcoholic beverage, or is employed by a licensee under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act (Division 9 (commencing with Section 23000) of the Business and Professions Code), and is driving the motor vehicle during regular hours and in the course of the person's employment. If the driver was unaccompanied, he or she shall have a complete defense if he or she was following, in a timely manner, the reasonable instructions of his or her parent, legal guardian, responsible adult relative, or adult designee relating to disposition of the alcoholic beverage. (b) No passenger in any motor vehicle who is under the age of 21 years shall knowingly possess or have under that person's control any alcoholic beverage, unless [the exceptions described in subsection (a) apply]."

 What is the Legal Definition of Underage Possession of Alcohol in a Vehicle?

Vehicle Code 23224 VC defines underage possession or transport of alcohol in a car as a person under the age of twenty-one (21) doing either of the following:

  1. Knowingly driving a motor vehicle carrying any alcoholic beverage, OR
  2. Knowingly possessing or controlling any alcoholic beverage while a passenger in a motor vehicle.3
Officer-pulling-over-driver
Vehicle Code 23224 VC makes it a crime for a person under 21 to transport any alcohol in a vehicle.

Unlike with California's open container laws, it does not matter whether the alcoholic beverage is open or not. You can be guilty of VC 23224 even if the can or bottle is sealed.

Example: Joy is 19. She and some friends are going to another friend's housewarming party, and Joy is bringing a bottle of wine as a housewarming present. 

Joy's friend picks her up to give her a ride to the party. Joy gets into the car with the bottle of wine, still corked and in a gift bag. On the way to the party Joy's friend is stopped by an officer for speeding.

If the officer notices the bottle of wine in Joy's hand, she could be charged under VC 23224 for possessing alcohol in a vehicle while under 21.

What are the Exceptions to California's Law against Possessing Alcohol in a Vehicle if You are under 21?

California Vehicle Code 23224 VC does set out a list of exceptions to the law against underage possession of alcohol in a vehicle. 

You are not guilty under VC 23224 if you are transporting a closed/sealed container of alcohol and one of the following is true:

  1. You are accompanied by a parent, responsible adult relative, another adult designated by your parent or a legal guardian for the purpose of transportation of an alcoholic beverage;
  2. You are employed by someone who is licensed to sell alcoholic beverages and are driving the motor vehicle during regular hours in the course of your employment; or
  3. You are following, in a timely manner, the reasonable instructions of a parent, legal guardian, responsible adult relative or adult designee relating to disposition of the alcohol.4
Wine-bottle-with-gift-bags
You are not guilty under VC 23224 if you are transporting alcohol at the instruction of an adult relative, guardian or designee.

The following are examples of people who would fall under the exceptions to Vehicle Code 23224 VC and would not be guilty of under-21 transporting alcohol in a vehicle:

  • A teenager learning to drive who drives his mother to the grocery store and then drives her and the groceries, including a six-pack of beer, back to their house;
  • A 20-year-old who works as a delivery driver for a grocery store making a delivery that includes several bottles of vodka; and
  • An 18-year-old who helps her aunt throw a birthday party at a banquet hall and then, at the aunt's request, drives several unopened bottles of wine left over from the party back to the aunt's house for her.

What are the Penalties for VC 23224 Underage Possession of Alcohol in a Vehicle?

VC 23224 is a California misdemeanor.5

The potential consequences of a conviction for under-21 possession or transport of alcohol in a vehicle include:

  • Up to six (6) months in county jail; 
  • A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000); and/or
  • Impoundment of your vehicle for up to thirty (30) days.6

In addition, the court will probably suspend your driver's license for up to one (1) year--which for many people can be among the most devastating consequences of a VC 23224 conviction. If you do not yet have your license, the court may delay the issuance of your license for one (1) year.7

California-drivers-license-marked-suspended
A conviction of underage possession of alcohol in a vehicle will result in a suspension of your driver's license.

According to Pasadena criminal and DUI defense attorney John Murray8

"California law suspends your license for underage transport of alcohol in a vehicle just as it would for a violation of California underage DUI laws like VC 23140 underage DUI with a BAC of 0.05 or above. This is pretty unfair considering that you can be convicted of VC 23224 even if you have never had a drink in your life. Fortunately, in some cases a good DUI defense attorney may be able to help you work to arrange for restricted driving privileges during the period of suspension."

How Can I Fight VC 23224 Underage Possession of Alcohol in a Vehicle Charges?

One of the most commonly effective legal defenses to charges of possessing or transporting alcohol in a vehicle while under 21 is to argue that you did not transport or possess the alcohol knowingly.

Whether you are accused of transporting alcohol as a driver or possessing it as a passenger, the prosecutor is required to prove that you knew of the alcohol's presence.9

But maybe a passenger brought it into your car without your knowledge. Or maybe you brought a bag or package containing alcohol into a car driven by someone else without knowing it.

Another helpful way to fight VC 23224 charges is to show that you fall under one of the exceptions to the rule against minors transporting alcohol.

This most often happens where the underage person was transporting alcohol at the instruction of a parent, guardian or other responsible adult--but because that person was not in the car with him/her, they are unable to prove it to the arresting officer and are charged anyway.

Call us for help...

criminal-defense-firm-call-center

For more information about Vehicle Code 23224 VC possession of alcohol in a vehicle by a person under 21, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our criminal defense attorneys, please don't hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group. Our California criminal law offices are located in and around Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.


Legal References:

  1. Vehicle Code 23224 VC -- Underage possession of alcohol in a vehicle. ("(a) No person under the age of 21 years shall knowingly drive any motor vehicle carrying any alcoholic beverage, unless the person is accompanied by a parent, responsible adult relative, any other adult designated by the parent, or legal guardian for the purpose of transportation of an alcoholic beverage, or is employed by a licensee under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act (Division 9 (commencing with Section 23000) of the Business and Professions Code), and is driving the motor vehicle during regular hours and in the course of the person's employment. If the driver was unaccompanied, he or she shall have a complete defense if he or she was following, in a timely manner, the reasonable instructions of his or her parent, legal guardian, responsible adult relative, or adult designee relating to disposition of the alcoholic beverage. (b) No passenger in any motor vehicle who is under the age of 21 years shall knowingly possess or have under that person's control any alcoholic beverage, unless the passenger is accompanied by a parent, legal guardian, responsible adult relative, any other adult designated by the parent, or legal guardian for the purpose of transportation of an alcoholic beverage, or is employed by a licensee under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act (Division 9 (commencing with Section 23000) of the Business and Professions Code), and possession or control is during regular hours and in the course of the passenger's employment. If the passenger was unaccompanied, he or she shall have a complete defense if he or she was following, in a timely manner, the reasonable instructions of his or her parent, legal guardian, responsible adult relative or adult designee relating to disposition of the alcoholic beverage.")
  2. Same.
  3. Same.
  4. Same.
  5. Vehicle Code 23224 VC -- Underage possession of alcohol in a vehicle.("(e) Any person convicted for a violation of subdivision (a) or (b) is guilty of a misdemeanor and shall be punished upon conviction by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000) or by imprisonment in the county jail for not more than six months, or by both that fine and imprisonment.")
  6. Same. See also Vehicle Code 23224 VC -- Underage possession of alcohol in a vehicle. ("(c) If the vehicle used in any violation of subdivision (a) or (b) is registered to an offender who is under the age of 21 years, the vehicle may be impounded at the owner's expense for not less than one day nor more than 30 days for each violation.")
  7. Vehicle Code 13202.5(a) VC -- Driver's license suspension [including for people convicted of VC 23224].
  8. Pasadena criminal and DUI defense attorney John Murray has earned a statewide reputation for representing clients in both criminal court and DMV hearings throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties. He is a nationally-recognized expert on California DUI law, including underage DUI and related crimes, and the California Vehicle Code.
  9. Vehicle Code 23224 VC -- Underage possession of alcohol in a vehicle, endnote 1 above.

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