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Is it Legal to Have Unopened Alcohol in Your Car in California?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Feb 26, 2020 | 0 Comments

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It is legal to have unopened alcohol in your car if you are over 21 years old. If you are under 21, it is illegal to be in possession of alcohol even if it is unopened. The only exception for under 21 drivers is the transport of unopened alcohol at the direction of a parent, guardian, or approved employer.

Open containers of alcohol are a different matter. It is illegal for anyone to have an open alcohol container in the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle if it is on a highway or public lands. It doesn't matter if the vehicle is moving or parked.

Open means that the container has been:

  • opened,
  • the seal is broken, OR
  • the beverage is partially or fully consumed.

An open container of alcohol must be kept in the trunk of the vehicle or a place where passengers do not sit. Keeping an open container of alcohol in the glove compartment is specifically against the law.

The open container law does not apply to passengers in any:

  • bus,
  • taxicab,
  • limousine
  • camper or house car, OR
  • pedicab.

Please note that a for-hire vehicle must be properly licensed to transport passengers pursuant to the Public Utilities Code or local authorities.

Is it Legal for a Passenger in a Moving Car to Drink Alcohol?

No. Under Vehicle Code 23221, it is illegal to have an open container in a moving motor vehicle on a highway or public lands. This applies to both drivers and passengers. An exception to this law is if the vehicle is a “hired” car like a bus, taxi or limo.

A violation of this section is punished as an infraction. Further, it is one point on a person's driving record for a moving violation of the open container law. See https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/dl/vioptct

Is it Legal to Drink Alcohol in a Car that is Parked?

No. Under Vehicle code 23223 it is illegal to have an open container of alcohol in the passenger compartment of a motor vehicle on a highway or public land. Further, most cities have ordinances prohibiting drinking alcohol in public. Open means that the container has been:

  • opened,
  • the seal is broken, OR
  • the contents have been partially or fully removed.

This offense is punished as an infraction. Infractions do not allow for jail time but simply a fine.

Please note that this open container law does not apply to nondriving passengers in a bus, taxi, camper, or motor home.

Is it Illegal for a Minor to Have Unopened Alcohol in a Car?

A person under the age of 21 cannot drive a motor vehicle carrying any alcoholic beverage. There are exceptions, however. Someone under 21 can drive a vehicle containing unopened alcohol if accompanied by:

  • a parent,
  • a responsible adult relative,
  • any other adult designated by the parent or legal guardian,
  • in the course of certain types of employment, OR
  • at the reasonable direction of a parent, guardian, or employer.

A driver or passenger under age 21 caught violating this law could be charged with a misdemeanor. The penalty may include:

  • six months in jail,
  • a $1,000 fine,
  • one-year driver's license suspension.

If the vehicle is registered to the underage driver at the time of driving it may be impounded for up to 30 days. See Vehicle Code 23224.

Are there Defenses to Having Open and Unopened Alcohol in a Car?

Yes, there are several defenses to being cited for having alcohol in a car. If a person is over 21, depending on the facts, defenses could include:

  • the container wasn't open,
  • the vehicle is a taxi, bus, limo or house car,
  • it wasn't mine,
  • vehicle was not on a highway or public land,
  • no probable cause to stop the vehicle.

If a person is under 21, possible alcohol defenses might include:

  • transporting unopened alcohol at parent's direction,
  • alcohol was in the trunk,
  • no probable cause to stop the vehicle.

What Alcohol Driving Laws Apply to All Drivers?

It is illegal for any person to operate a vehicle with a blood alcohol level of:

  • .08% or higher if the person is 21 years old or older,
  • .01% or higher if the person is under 21 years old,
  • .01% or higher if the person is on probation for a DUI,
  • .04% or higher when a passenger for hire is in the vehicle at the time of the offense.

The DMV can take an administrative action against your driving privilege if you are

detained or arrested for a DUI. The court may take a separate action for the same

offense. The court's action may include:

  • a fine,
  • jail time,
  • a suspended driver's license, and
  • completion of a DUI program.

When notified of a DUI conviction by the court the DMV will suspend or revoke a person's driving privilege.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.

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