If you are under the legal drinking age of 21, possession of any alcohol, whether or not the container is open, means you could be charged with a misdemeanor offense. In fact, upon conviction for the more common charge of under age possession of alcohol (BPC 25662), you could face fines and community service, even on a first offense. Additionally, a minor in possession of an open container in a vehicle (CA Vehicle Code 23224) could also lead to vehicle impoundment, license suspension (or delay in license eligibility), and even jail time.
CA Vehicle Codes 23221-23229 addresses possessing and transporting open containers in a car. Consider the following notable regulations and exceptions:
- No driver or passenger in a car may consume alcohol while the car is on the road
- No driver or passenger in a car may possess an open container (as defined above)
- Unopened, sealed containers of alcohol may be stored anywhere in a car
- Open, partially consumed and unsealed containers may be stored in the trunk
- Passengers only in vehicles for hire (taxis, limousines, party buses, etc.) and vehicles that qualify as living quarters (campers, tour buses, housecars, etc.) may consume alcohol and possess open containers
- Vehicles for hire/charters may not store or transport any alcohol if any passengers are under age 21
- No one under age 21 may drive a car carrying any alcoholic products unless with permission or instruction from a parent or guardian and/or for the sole purpose of transporting of transporting the items, such as for their job
Assuming you are of the legal drinking age (at least 21), violating an open container law is just a minor infraction violation—not a crime—for which the penalty is up to $250 in fines (plus court costs if you dispute the citation and lose)—the severity is akin to a speeding ticket.
If you are underage and are caught driving with an open container, you face more serious misdemeanor charges and could be penalized with much steeper fines (up to $1,000 before court fees), as well as up to 6 months in jail and revocation of or temporary ineligibility for your license. You could also be asked to take a breathalyzer test and charged with DUI if you register even 0.01% blood alcohol content.
In general, if you are charged with DUI, the presence of an open container at the time of arrest is likely to result in harsher penalties should you be convicted.
Despite being only a minor infraction, a simple open container violation is not something you want on your record. Not only are fees costly, but you could be assessed points on your license, leading to an increase in auto insurance rates.
It is important to remember that you have a legal right to defend yourself against an open container ticket or related charge. Some of the common defense strategies for this violation include:
- Proving that the open container was stored properly in the trunk or that the container was properly unopened and sealed
- Questioning whether the officer who stopped you had reasonable suspicion/probable cause to stop you
- Demonstrating that your open container was discovered during the course of an illegal search and seizure
Additionally, certain people facing DUI charges may attempt to leverage an open container violation as a plea bargain. This means they plead guilty to the much lesser open container charge, accepting the fines, fees and court costs, and thereby avoiding the far more serious penalties for driving under the influence. This is a rare outcome, especially without a skilled defense lawyer by your side, but is considered one of the best possible results for those charged with DUI.