Like most states, California has made it illegal to drive with an open container of alcohol inside the vehicle. It does not matter if you’ve been consuming the alcohol or not—if it’s open, it’s technically illegal.
However, these laws are not evenly enforced, and on their own they are much less serious than a DUI, at least for adults. For a driver under the legal drinking age, an open container (or even sealed container) is much more serious.
We’ll look at how the open container laws work, the penalties they carry, and how to defend against an “open container” charge.
How Open Container Laws Work in Los Angeles
If you’re 21 or older, it’s legal to drive with alcohol in the vehicle unless both of the following conditions apply:
- The alcohol has been opened, and
- The alcohol is in a part of the car typically occupied by people
That means you can have an open bottle of whisky in the trunk and it’s legal. You can also have a sealed bottle of wine (never uncorked) sitting next to you in the front seat, and it’s legal. But if the wine is open, even if the bottle is completely full, you are breaking the law.
That doesn’t mean police will necessarily ticket you for it. Often, if police spy alcohol in the vehicle, they’ll use their own judgment in choosing how to proceed. If you appear intoxicated, or you’re being disrespectful, they will likely ticket you—and probably administer a field sobriety test as well. But if you appear sober and you are polite to the officer, they will often give you a warning and let you go. It’s their call.
If they do ticket you, and you are 21 or older, an open container violation is an infraction (traffic ticket), not a crime. The maximum fine is $250.
Persons Under 21 with Alcohol in the Vehicle
If you are under 21 years of age, a container of alcohol is much more serious. An underage person with alcohol in the vehicle faces a misdemeanor criminal charge. If convicted, you could face:
- A fine of up to $1,000
- Up to six months in jail
The container laws themselves are also much stricter if you’re under the age of 21. As an underage individual, you could be convicted even if:
- The alcohol was completely sealed (not open)
- You weren’t driving, and were simply a passenger
At this point, simply having the alcohol in your possession is enough to be convicted. There are exceptions if you’re accompanied by your parents or acting under their instructions. There is also an exception if transporting the sealed alcohol container was part of your job duties.
Open Container and DUI in California
The real danger with an open container is not the ticket itself, but the fact that it makes police suspicious. If they see an open container they may suspect drunk driving even if you seem perfectly sober. Thus, an open container (or sealed container under 21) is often an excuse to administer field sobriety tests or a roadside breath test.
This is legal on the grounds that it gives “probable cause” to suspect drunk driving. However, there are ways to fight this charge.
Beating an Open Container Charge in California
There are many defenses that can work against an open container charge:
- The alcohol was in a locked box or storage bin.
- The alcohol was in an “open” (hatchback style) trunk; it was being transported in an area of the car not normally occupied by people.
- The alcohol was in the bed of a pickup truck or anywhere else people don’t usually ride.
- The vehicle was a hired car such as a taxi, limousine or “party bus.” In this case an open container is allowed (for passengers, not the driver).
- The vehicle was a camper or RV. Again, in this case an open container is allowed for passengers only.
- The police stopped you illegally.
- The stop was legal, but the officers only found the container because of an illegal search.
The best way to fight an open container charge or a related DUI charge is to speak to an experienced Los Angeles DUI lawyer. We can connect you with a top local lawyer with the right experience for your case. Your DUI lawyer will give you a FREE consultation on your case. Fill out the form to the right or call (310) 862-0199 and get your FREE consultation today.