Open Container Law

What is an Open Container Law?

On a warm night in California, it can be hard to resist the temptation to grab a cold one, let the top down, and take a quick ride down to the beach.

Or maybe someone has been at a friend’s place and decide to take one from the cooler to enjoy on the way home. Even if someone decides to stop at the corner liquor store for a six-pack and pop one open four traffic lights from home, they had better be on good terms with bail bond company because, if they happen to draw the attention of the local police, they are probably going to be charged with an open container violation.

CA Law

California, like every state that borders on it, has an open container law. Under the California version of open container, if the driver or any passenger has an open bottle, can, paper cup, goatskin, or anything else that contains an alcoholic beverage, that person has has violated Section 23220 of the California Vehicle Code and can easily find themselves on the hook for a fine of up to $250.

Under the California Vehicle Code, “open container” is defined as any container, can, or bottle that 1) has been opened, 2) has had its seal broken, or 3) has been partially or entirely consumed. As far as #3 is concerned, a person could be charged for having an empty beer can in their car even if the can had been lying on the floorboard since last Christmas!

California Vehicle Code

Section 23220 – 23229 covers a variety of situations such as:

  • drinking in a motor vehicle
  • possession of an open container in a motor vehicle
  • possession of an open container by a person under 21
  • having an open container in the trunk of a motor vehicle
  • having an open container in the glove box or in the center console.

As mentioned earlier, open container violations are considered infractions. If, however, a person under the age of 21 is in the vehicle, then a new set of rules kicks in because a person under the legal drinking age in California cannot 1) drive a vehicle with the knowledge that the vehicle contains an alcoholic beverage or 2) be a passenger in a vehicle while being in possession of an alcoholic beverage. As before, open or empty doesn’t matter. And simply being under the age of 21 bumps everything up to a misdemeanor, where it can earn the violator up to six months of jail time, a drivers license suspension of one year, and/or a $1,000 fine.

If you think that the above conditions and potential punishments are a bit on the Draconian side, you aren’t alone. Fortunately, these represent the maximum punishments that can be handed down and will probably not be assessed unless this isn’t the first time someone has been cited on an open container charge or unless the person charged runs their mouth at the officer and talks themselves into a charge.

The reason California, and other states, have such laws is that they need to be compliant with federal highway laws such as the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century if the states want to keep the highway projects funding pipeline open all the way back to places like the Department of Transportation in Washington DC.

Fortunately for anyone charged with violations of Section 23220 there are a number of defenses that could be raised, but these defenses will not be discussed here simply because they are too numerous to list and, in the long run, are of more concern to defense attorneys and their clients rather than to bondsmen.


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