23224 (a) No person under the age of 21 years shall knowingly drive any motor vehicle carrying any alcoholic beverage, unless the person is accompanied by a parent, responsible adult relative, any other adult designated by the parent, or legal guardian for the purpose of transportation of an alcoholic beverage, or is employed by a licensee under the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act [and] is driving the motor vehicle during regular hours and in the course of the person’s employment… [or] if he or she was following, in a timely manner, the reasonable instructions of his or her parent, legal guardian, responsible adult relative, or adult designee relating to disposition of the alcoholic beverage.
(b) No passenger in any motor vehicle who is under the age of 21 years shall knowingly possess or have under that person’s control any alcoholic beverage [except in the circumstances above]
California makes it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to possess alcohol in any circumstances, but it’s treated even more seriously when they’re in a motor vehicle. Underage persons who are found with alcohol in a vehicle, whether they are the driver or a passenger, will be charged under VC 23224.
It’s important to note that:
- A “vehicle” includes any self-propelled vehicle. Dirt bikes, golf carts, motorboats and other vehicles do count.
- Unlike other open container laws, the alcohol does not have to be open to count against you. Even a sealed bottle of wine in the trunk is a violation if you are under 21 years of age.
- VC 23224 is not just a traffic ticket—it’s a misdemeanor criminal offense with serious consequences (see below)
What are the penalties for possessing alcohol in a vehicle under 21 years of age?
California views this crime and all underage drinking crimes very seriously. Penalties include:
- Up to 6 months in jail
- Fines of up to $1,000
- Having your license suspended for 1 year (or, if you don’t yet have a driver’s license, having it delayed by up to 1 year)
- If the car was yours, it could be impounded for up to 30 days
Most important, if you are the driver you may face other charges as well. Most underage drivers charged with VC 23224 will also be investigated for an underage DUI charge.
How do the exceptions work?
VC 23224 offers three exceptions:
- You’re not breaking the law if you’re with a parent or guardian. For example, children who ride along while Dad drives to the liquor store and back have not violated VC 23224.
- You’re not breaking the law if you’re follow your guardian’s instructions. If your mom gives you a bottle of wine to take to your aunt’s house as a gift, that’s legal. (It may not be legal if the wine is open.)
- You’re not breaking the law if transporting the alcohol is part of your job.
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