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Is having an open container of alcohol inside a car a crime in California?

On Behalf of | Oct 2, 2023 | DUI |

It’s illegal to drive while under the influence of alcohol in California, like in most other U.S. states. The Golden State has some of the strictest laws when it comes to driving under the influence (DUI), and those who are convicted of the offense face penalties such as jail time, fines, license suspensions and even vehicle confiscation.

But what about having an open container of alcohol inside your vehicle? Is it a crime to have a bottle of beer or a similar alcoholic beverage in your car’s cup holder? And are passengers allowed to have alcohol containers?

Possessing an open container of alcohol is an infraction

Instead of a crime, having an open container of an alcoholic beverage – whether as a driver or passenger – while on Californian roads is an infraction. The state’s vehicle code also broadly defines the container as any receptacle containing an alcoholic drink, whether a can, bottle or reusable flask.

Infractions aren’t crimes but are like traffic violations. If an officer discovers that you have an open container of alcohol, even if you’ve consumed all its contents, they can issue you with an infraction, which comes with a maximum $250 fine.

However, a specific situation exists when having an open container is a crime.

When is possessing an open container a crime?

If the driver or passenger of a vehicle is under 21 and caught possessing an open container of alcohol, the officer can charge the underage person with a misdemeanor. If a court convicts the underage person, they must serve up to six months in county jail or pay as much as $1,000 in fines.

Apart from fines and jail time, if the vehicle during the offense belongs to the underage offender, law enforcement may impound the car at the owner’s expense for a maximum of 30 days per separate violation.

Open containers are a bad idea

Whether you’re a driver or a passenger, of legal age or underage, having an open container of alcohol next to you while inside a vehicle is illegal. Open container charges might also accompany DUI charges, and the penalties can stack with the punishments for a DUI conviction. Those facing multiple charges may want to seek legal counsel to understand their situation and prepare their defense in court.