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California Open Container Law - Vehicle Code Sections 23221 - 23229


Los Angeles Criminal Defense LawyerIn California, there are specific laws that address the issue of driving with open containers of alcohol and consuming alcoholic beverages while driving. These laws aim to prevent drunk driving and ensure the safety of all individuals on the road.

The regulations regarding open containers in California can be found in Vehicle Code Sections 23221–23229 VC. These laws explicitly prohibit the presence of open alcohol containers in a vehicle and the act of consuming any type of alcoholic beverage while operating a vehicle. This prohibition applies to various alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine, liquor, spritzers, and even marijuana.

According to California Vehicle Code 23222(a) VC, it is illegal for anyone to possess, while driving a motor vehicle on a highway or lands, any open bottle, can, or receptacle containing an alcoholic beverage. This includes containers that have been opened, have a broken seal, or have had their contents partially removed.

What is Considered An Open Container?

Under California law, several items that may not be commonly thought of as open containers are still considered as such. For instance:

  • Cups, glasses, and hip flasks are all considered open containers.
  • Additionally, a bottle that has had its seal removed is considered open, regardless of whether it has been opened before.
  • Bottles of wine that have been opened and resealed with the cork are also considered open containers, even if they are still full.
  • Empty cans or bottles found under the seat are also deemed open containers.
  • Furthermore, a growler of beer that has never been opened is considered open if the seal has been removed or if it never had a seal to begin with.

These provisions specifically apply to containers that have held or currently contain alcoholic beverages, and containers that have held non-alcoholic beverages are exempt from these regulations.

It is against the law to have any open container of alcohol in your car, even if the container is empty. It is not necessary for you to be actively consuming alcohol. If law enforcement officers notice an open container in your car during a routine traffic stop, you may be charged under Vehicle Code 23222.


The term “open” refers to a container that has been opened, has a broken seal, or has been partially or entirely consumed. California open container laws typically result in receiving a citation for an infraction charge, unless it involves underage possession of alcohol.

Will An Open Container Always Be Considered Illegal?

No, the legality of an open container varies depending on the jurisdiction and specific circumstances. While in some cases possessing an open container may be illegal, there could be exceptions or allowances in certain designated areas or situations. For example:

  • When driving on private lands, such as dirt roads on private property, VC 23222(a) does not apply.
  • If you are a passenger in a vehicle-for-hire, like a limousine or taxi, it is legal to consume alcohol and have open containers.

Open containers can also be legally transported if they are securely stowed in an area of the vehicle that is not easily accessible to passengers, such as the trunk (even if the car is a hatchback).

Open Container Laws Explanation by Penal Codes

Vehicle Code 23221-23229 VC provides comprehensive regulations regarding open containers of alcohol in a car. In accordance with the law, an “open container” refers to a can, bottle, or other receptacle that has its seal broken or has been partially or entirely consumed. The specific laws pertaining to open containers are as follows:

  • Vehicle Code 23221 VC: Prohibits the consumption of alcohol or marijuana by the driver or any passenger in a car while on a public roadway.
  • Vehicle Code 23222 VC: Makes it illegal (though an infraction) to possess an open container of alcohol or cannabis in a car.
  • Vehicle Code 23224 VC: Classifies as a misdemeanor for individuals under 21 to drive a vehicle containing alcohol (open or unopened), unless under proper parental supervision or lawfully transporting it as part of their job. It also makes it a misdemeanor for a passenger under 21 to knowingly possess or have control over an alcoholic beverage, again, unless under proper adult supervision.
  • Vehicle Code 23225 VC: Permits the storage of open container(s)  of alcohol only if in a trunk or locked compartment that is inaccessible to drivers and passengers.
  • Vehicle Code 23226 VC: Prohibits the storage of open containers in the glove compartment or other compartments within reach of the driver or passenger(s).
  • Vehicle Code 23229 VC: Provides exceptions to the open container rules for passengers traveling in vehicles for hire, such as taxicabs and limousines.
  • Vehicle Code 23229.1 VC: Renders it illegal for in-hire vehicles to store alcohol while transporting passengers under 21.

These laws play a crucial role in regulating and ensuring the safe transportation of alcohol in vehicles.

Federal Influence on State Open Container Laws

By October 1, 2000, every state was required by federal drug law to have an open container law in place. Failure to comply would result in a portion of their federal aid highway construction funds being rerouted to other state safety programs each year. These funds would be directed to the state’s Section 402 highway safety program to enforce anti-drunk driving laws or to support the state’s hazard elimination program. To continue receiving federal funding, all states adopted their own form of open container legislation.

The laws varied from state to state, with some being extremely restrictive and not allowing the seal on any container to be broken if it was accessible to the driver, even in the glove box. Other states allowed for containers to be stored in locked glove compartments.

What Are The Penalties?

Having an open container in a vehicle is classified as an “infraction,” which means it is not considered a misdemeanor criminal offense in California. It is comparable to receiving a speeding ticket, with a maximum penalty of a fine of up to $250.

However, there are two exceptions to this:

  • If you are under 21 years of age, the consequences are more severe. You may face charges for underage possession of alcohol in a vehicle (California VC 23224), which is a criminal misdemeanor. The penalties for this offense can include up to 6 months in jail, fines of up to $1,000, and the possibility of losing your license.
  • If an open container violation is combined with a DUI charge, the judge may opt for stricter penalties for the DUI offense compared to a case without the additional offense.

Regardless of the circumstances, having an open container in a vehicle will always raise suspicion from law enforcement. They are likely to investigate for DUI and may ask you to undergo a breath test or even arrest you on the spot for DUI charges.


Common Defenses For Open Container Violations

If you have been charged for an open container violation, there are several potential defenses that you can utilize to contest it and potentially avoid fines and points on your record. Below, we will discuss some common defenses to open container violations:

  • Arguing that the open container was in the trunk or a locked compartment, which would mean you did not violate Vehicle Code 23222 VC
  • Asserting that the container was unopened. If the police officer cannot prove that the container was opened, you have a strong defense against the open container charge.
  • Claiming that you were on private property. Open container laws typically apply to public highways and roadways, so if you were on private property when the police found the open container, you may not have violated the law.
  • Asserting that you were a passenger in a vehicle for hire. California law allows passengers in cabs, limos, and similar vehicles to have open containers and consume alcohol. If you were a passenger, rather than the driver, you could argue that you were within your rights to have an open container.
  • Arguing that the container belonged to someone else in the car. For an open container violation to apply, the container must be in your possession or under your control. If you were a passenger and someone else had the open container, you can contest the citation on these grounds.
  • Challenging the probable cause for the traffic stop. If the police did not have a valid reason, such as speeding or erratic driving, to pull you over, you could argue that the open container citation should be dismissed.
  • Arguing that there was an illegal search and seizure. If the police violated California’s search and seizure laws, such as by searching the vehicle without consent or probable cause, you can argue that any evidence, including the open container, should be excluded from the case.

Speak With A Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you or a family member is facing an accusation of violating California’s open container laws, it is recommended to reach out to Tabibnia Law Firm for assistance. Cyrus Tabibnia, an experienced attorney, can provide comprehensive legal representation throughout the state. To have your case reviewed and discuss potential legal options, you can contact him through the provided phone number at 866-713-2159 or by using the contact form available.

Legal References:

Open-container law | Offenses Involving Alcohol and Drugs | Open Containers of Alcohol in Motor Vehicles

Cyrus Tabibnia

Cyrus Tabibnia

Cyrus Tabibnia, also known as Shahrooz Tabibnia, is a criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles, California. With a law degree from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, he has been practicing law since 2005 and holds license #237348. With over 18 years of experience, Cyrus specializes in various misdemeanor and felony criminal Law including Domestic Violence, Theft Crime, Sex crime, DUI & DWI, Personal Injury, Employment Law, and Cannabis & Marijuana Drugs Law. Being bilingual in English, Persian, and Spanish enables him to effectively communicate with a diverse range of clients. From 2014 to 2018, he served as a board member of the Iranian American Bar Association. An expungement attorney in Los Angeles who can assist you in clearing your criminal record in the state of California.

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