Most states in the U.S. have open container laws, and California is no exception. In the Golden State, it is illegal to consume or possess an open or unsealed container of alcohol while inside a vehicle. It is also unlawful to have loose marijuana or an open or unsealed container of marijuana while inside a car. However, there are exceptions to open container laws and, in many cases, the state treats the two substances differently. Several sections of California's Vehicle Code apply to open container laws.
Defining an Open Container in California
The law subjects both drivers and passengers to open container laws in California. According to Los Angeles driving under the influence (DUI) attorney, Alex Andryuschenko, an open container applies to any unsealed, partially consumed or uncorked beverage container with alcohol inside, even if the container is full. When taking empty containers to a recycling center, putting them in the trunk or another locked area is the safest way not to break the law, as there might be some alcohol left inside the bottles or cans.
A driver operating a vehicle with an open or unsealed alcoholic beverage, an open or unsealed cannabis container or loose marijuana on public roads or lands can face an open container violation. However, if a driver is operating a vehicle on private property, California's open container law does not apply.
California's Open Container Laws
These California Vehicle Code sections prohibit driving with an open container of alcohol or marijuana inside a vehicle:
- Vehicle Code 23222(a): A driver must not possess an open alcoholic beverage, a container with a broken seal or partially removed contents while in a vehicle.
- Vehicle Code 23222 (b): A driver must not possess loose cannabis or cannabis products that have been opened or have a broken seal.
- Vehicle Code 23224: A driver under the age of 21 cannot have alcohol in the car unless accompanied by an adult, the driver is following instructions from an adult, or transporting it as part of a job.
- Vehicle Code 23225: A driver must not possess an open alcoholic beverage, a container with a broken seal or a container with partially removed contents unless stored in the vehicle's trunk.
- Vehicle Code 23226: A driver must not store an open alcoholic beverage, a container with a broken seal or partially removed contents in a vehicle's passenger compartment.
There are exceptions to these open container laws. Vehicle Code Section 23229 states that open container laws do not apply to passengers in buses, taxis or limousines for hire, and Vehicle Code Section 23225 states that they also do not apply to the drivers or owners of buses, taxis or limousines for hire.
Open Container Penalties for Alcohol
The severity of open container violations depends on the age of the person charged. A DUI charge is not as severe for those 21 or over. A ticket for an opened container is sometimes equivalent to a traffic ticket and carries a fine of about $250. However, an opened container can lead the police officer to suspect a driver of DUI. A judge or officer can consider it probable cause, which can lead to a DUI investigation, including various chemical or field sobriety tests.
If a driver is under 21, possession of an open container can subject that driver to a misdemeanor offense. And, the court can report an open container conviction to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), affecting the minor driver's insurance rates. The driver can also face a charge for possessing alcohol, even if the container is sealed.
Open Container Penalties for Marijuana
Marijuana in an open container is usually an infraction, punishable by a fine of about $100; there is no jail time. According to California lawyer Christopher Martens, the driver must be in control of the open container or have possession of it to break the law. The open container law does not apply when the marijuana container is in the trunk of the car. It also does not apply to medical marijuana patients who have a valid identification card or a physician's recommendation. Regardless, all marijuana must be in a closed container.
If a driver or passenger in the vehicle is younger than 21, they may face a misdemeanor charge, which carries a fine of up to $1,000. An underage possession charge and penalty can also occur with a sealed container. A driver with this ticket can also face higher insurance rates and can lose currently held driver certifications.
Open Container Infraction as an Aggravating Factor
While open container violations result only in a fine, the courts can treat it as an aggravating factor, particularly in DUI cases. Having alcohol or marijuana in an unsealed or open container can lead to a suspicion by law enforcement of impaired driving. If an officer arrests a driver in a DUI case, the courts can use an open container charge as evidence of guilt.
If a driver faces a DUI arrest, that driver may have both a drunk driving charge and an open container infraction to contend with. The driver must submit to a chemical or field sobriety test once an arrest has taken place, and a chemical test refusal can result in additional penalties.
In California, a DUI arrest will trigger the DMV to suspend the driver's license automatically. An arrest is enough for a license suspension, even if the driver faces only an open container infraction. If there is a suspension, the driver can request a hearing to contest it within 10 days of the arrest, according to LosAngelesDUIAttorney.com.
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.