California’s Open Container Laws

The rules and penalties for consuming and possessing open containers of alcohol and marijuana in a vehicle.

California’s open container laws generally prohibit consumption and possession of open containers of alcohol and marijuana in a motor vehicle. However, a number of exceptions apply, and the law treats alcohol and marijuana differently in some important respects. This article gives an overview of California’s open container laws and the penalties for a violation.

Alcohol and Marijuana Consumption in a Vehicle

California law generally prohibits drinking alcohol or smoking or ingesting marijuana while driving or being driven in a motor vehicle on a highway. In other words, consumption of marijuana and alcohol is prohibited for drivers and passengers while inside a moving vehicle. The marijuana prohibition applies not only to marijuana in plant form but also to marijuana products such as edibles and concentrates. A violation of the consumption law by a driver or passenger is an infraction.

Possession of Open Containers in a Vehicle

Driving while in possession of an opened container. California’s open container law makes it an infraction to drive on a highway (or certain lands designated for off-road vehicles) while in possession of “loose cannabis flower” or an open container of alcohol, marijuana, or a marijuana product. A container of alcohol is considered “opened” if:

  • it has been opened
  • it has a broken seal, or
  • some of the contents have been removed.

Similarly, a marijuana container is considered opened if it:

  • has been opened, or
  • has a broken seal.

The open container law contains an exemption for driving with loose marijuana or an open container of marijuana stored in the trunk of a vehicle. For open containers of alcohol, there’s no trunk exemption written into the law. However, a driver caught with an open container in the trunk would likely have a strong argument that the container was not in his or her actual possession while driving.

Possession of an open container of alcohol inside a vehicle. California has separate open container laws that apply regardless of whether the vehicle is being driven (actually in motion). These laws generally prohibit possessing or keeping open containers of alcohol in a motor vehicle that’s on a highway or certain lands designated for off-road vehicles. So, a person can violate these laws even if the vehicle is parked (rather than driving) on one of these roadways or lands.

Alcohol stored in a trunk or living quarters of a motorhome or camper is exempt from these open container laws. And the laws’ provisions don’t apply to open containers of marijuana.

Vehicle-For-Hire and Motorhome Exceptions

Generally, California’s open container and consumption laws don’t apply to passengers riding in:

  • buses, taxis, pedicabs, and limousines for hire, and
  • the living quarters of a motorhome or camper.

The owners and drivers of these vehicles are also exempt from the laws that prohibit storage of open containers in vehicles.

Open Container Fines and Penalties

Generally, open container violations are infractions. The maximum fine for most violations is $250. But for offenses involving possession of an open container of marijuana, the fines top out at $100.

However, drivers and passengers who are under the age of 21 may face misdemeanor charges for possession of alcohol in a vehicle, regardless of whether the container is open. A conviction carries up to six months in jail and/or a maximum $1,000 in fines.

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