California Open Container Laws

California, like most states, regulates how and where people age 21 and over can legally transport and consume open containers of alcohol. With only a few exceptions, open containers are not permitted in public spaces or vehicles in Orange County and throughout California.

It may surprise you to learn that open container law violations are some of the most common citations issued in our state and that the court takes them quite seriously because of their adjacency to DUI offenses. While simple possession of an open container in public is only a minor violation punishable by fines, presence of an open container in a car can lead to much more serious charges and penalties—especially for the person in the driver’s seat. 

If you are facing any kind of open container citation, working with a knowledgeable and trustworthy criminal defense attorney is critical to your success in fighting the charges. Consult The Law Offices of Bryan R. Kazarian for help.

What counts as an open container?

California law defines the term open container more broadly than you might expect. In fact, you can receive a citation for an open container even if you are not drunk or actively drinking from the container, and even if the container’s cap or lid is on. Any bottle, container or receptacle of alcohol that meets any of the following criteria counts as an open container in California:

  • It has been opened
  • Its seal has been broken
  • Some or all of its contents have been consumed

Many people unwittingly receive violations, not even realizing they are in possession of an open container in their car until it is too late. Consider the following examples:

  • Totally empty bottles or beer cans
  • Hip flasks, reusable aluminum bottles and jugs
  • A bottle of wine which was opened, but recorked, if no other seal is present (even if it is full)
  • A never-opened growler of beer, if no seal is present

California open container in public 

Drinking in public places is prohibited in California, and thus, possessing an open container (as defined above) in such spaces can result in a citation. CA Business and Professions Code (BPC) 25620 defines a public place as “any city, county, or city and county owned park or other city, county, or city and county owned public place, or any recreation and park district, or any regional park or open-space district.” Exceptions exist only if you first acquire a temporary license or permit to consume alcohol in a public area, such as for a party or other event, or if you are transporting empty open containers to be recycled.

California Open Container Laws


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Underage open container laws in California

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.

Driving with an Open Container in California

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

Penalties for open container law violations

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.  

Common defenses for open container charges

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. 

Consult a lawyer after being cited for an open container in Southern California

Whether or not you are of legal drinking age, receiving a ticket for violating open container laws can impose a financial burden and lead to other unforeseen consequences. When it comes to defending yourself or your loved one, you need a highly professional and experienced attorney to guide you to the best outcome possible. To learn more about how The Law Offices of Bryan R. Kazarian can help you, or for more information about California open container laws, call 855-918-4353 or contact us online today.

We have offices in Santa Ana, Westminster, Newport Beach and Fullerton to serve clients with matters heard at the Central, West, Harbor, and North Justice Centers, respectively, for all of Orange County.  The lawyers at The Law Offices of Bryan R. Kazarian are here to help!  Book an online consultation to get started today.
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