Vista criminal attorney law prides itself as being made up of highly qualified attorneys. Our key focus lies in providing our clients with criminal defense services in regard to California law. The attorneys that comprise our team have many years of criminal law experience and have represented clients in a wide range of criminal cases.

Drinking while in a motor vehicle is considered a relatively light charge attracting minimal penalties. Nevertheless, more penalties can be imposed on offenders who have had multiple charges brought up against them. It is our duty to ensure that all our clients are well represented against the charges.

What is The Consumption of Alcohol While in a Motor Vehicle Charge in California?

In regards to California law, it is unlawful for any person to partake in the consumption of any alcoholic beverage while in a moving vehicle on the state’s public roads. This particular law can be found in the state’s Vehicle Code 23221 VC, which is part of the “open container” laws.

What are “Open Container” Laws in California?

California’s Vehicle Codes incorporate segments 23221-23229 VC that govern the intake of alcoholic beverages by passengers and drivers alike. This means that the Vehicle Codes also prohibit the consumption of alcohol by passengers while in transit, and can be used in the prosecution of such lawbreakers.

The law stipulates that as long as a motor vehicle is in motion, passengers and drivers alike are prohibited from alcohol consumption. Section 23221 VC describes open containers as those whose seals are already broken or those with entirely or partially consumed alcohol. This generally means that police officers are allowed to make arrests where the contents of packaged alcoholic beverages are found missing. Moreover, the law also provides that in situations where the drinks are found in secondary containers such as thermos flasks and party cups, the owners of such items are found to have disregarded the law. Therefore, the absence of the original alcoholic containers cannot be used as a form of defense in regards to the said law.

What If the Open Container Was In the Trunk of the Car?

Sometimes drivers may opt to carry open alcoholic drinks in the trunk of their cars for various reasons which may lead to their arrest for drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle. In hatchbacks or SUVs, for example, it can be argued that the trunks are part of the vehicles’ interior. In such scenarios, it becomes difficult to interpret Vehicle Code 23221 VC. Having open containers in the trunk of motor vehicles does not violate California law. The main objective of the state’s open container laws is to prevent access to alcoholic drinks by drivers and passengers while driving on the highways. It should, therefore, be noted that the storage of open containers in the glovebox is against the law. Another example that can be used is the interpretation of the law in regards to pickup trucks. The trucks’ beds are considered safe for storage as long as the spaces are not occupied by passengers.

How Does the Law Apply to Minors?

According to section 23224 VC of California’s Open Container Laws, it is illegal for individuals below the age of 21 to take part in alcohol consumption while in moving vehicles. This includes as a passenger or driving in a car in which they knowingly possess alcoholic drinks; whether opened or not. For individuals under the legal drinking age, the California Vehicle Code provides for sterner penalties for drinking while in moving motor vehicles as compared to those given to individuals above the age of 21.

However, the law exempts the arrest of minors in cases where they do so in the presence of responsible adult relatives. Additionally, minors are also allowed to drive with alcoholic beverages as long as they do so under their employers’ or parent’s directives.

Can Sober Drivers be arrested for Alcohol Consumption while in Transit?

The answer is yes. Although California’s Vehicle Code 23221 VC applies to all occupants of a moving motor vehicle, the presence of open alcoholic containers in motor vehicles can be used as a ground for charges against drivers of such vehicles. The law states that no alcoholic drinks should be in sight when driving in the state’s highways. In cases where passengers engage in alcohol consumption while motor vehicles are in transit, police officers may go ahead to arrest drivers on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). However, a conviction is automatically stopped after the driver in such a case passes all the DUI tests.

What Must the Prosecution Prove in a Drinking Alcohol in a Motor Vehicle Case?

For a valid conviction to stand, some basic facts have to be considered by the prosecuting attorneys. These cover the definition of a motor vehicle, the act of consumption itself, and the location within which the action takes places as follows:

  • The arrested party has to be seen as consuming or intending to consume alcohol while in the moving vehicle. An example can be given of a vehicle owner whose passengers are in possession of visible open bottles of alcohol or other related items such as wine glasses. In such a scenario, the passengers would be liable for prosecution for acting against Vehicle Code 23221 VC, regardless of whether the driver is sober or not.

  • The offenders should also be inside a motor vehicle. In reference to California law, a motor vehicle is any vehicle that is mechanically propelled. Examples of motor vehicles are automobiles, trucks, motorbikes, or tractors. Nevertheless, the law does not classify public transport vehicles that are licensed to facilitate the consumption of alcohol. Instances can be given of party vans and buses that are used for recreational purposes.

  • Additionally, for the law to stand, the consumption of alcohol should be seen to take place on highways. In this case, any public road meant for the passage of vehicles is considered a highway. For instance, the law cannot be used to prosecute individuals that drink alcohol in privately owned roads as these are not open to the general public.

Penalties for Drinking in a Motor Vehicle


In California law, drinking while in a motor vehicle is considered an infraction. Infractions are considered less serious than other crimes such as felonies or misdemeanors. Most infractions are traffic-related and carry a maximum fine of $250. The $250 is considered as the base fine. However, infractions can attract additional fines depending on the nature of the crime.

Fees and Additional Penalties

Apart from receiving fines, offenders may also receive supplementary points to their DMV records. When points are added to an individual’s DMV record, their vehicle insurance rates also go up. Additionally, motorists may also receive suspensions on their driver’s licenses after multiple offenses as follows:

  • When they accumulate 4 points in a period of one year,

  • When they accumulate 6 points in a period of two years, or

  • When they accumulate 8 points within a 36-month time period

However, point addition can be substituted for driving school classes. Unqualified candidates would have to be qualified. They would also be required to attend the classes. In cases where an offender decides to protest against a drinking while in a motor vehicle charge, he or she is only entitled to a court hearing where the presiding judge acts as the prosecution. This means that the judge begins the process of verifying whether the said infraction took place or not.

Penalties for Minors

For individuals under the legal age of 21 years, the offense of drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle is considered a misdemeanor. In California law, misdemeanors are regarded as worse offenses than infractions. Misdemeanors are offenses that may lead to a suspect being fined and subsequently incarcerated. In regards to cases presented against offenders under 21 years of age, the following penalties may be imposed:

The minor may be fined $1000, a half-year jail sentence, or both (standard misdemeanors). This is because individuals under the age of 21 are banned from alcohol consumption in the state of California.

Multiple offenders may also be fined between $1000 and $2000 depending on the nature of the case. In addition, jail sentences of up to 12 months may accompany the fines (gross misdemeanors).

Minors that go against Vehicle Code 23221 VC may also have their driving privileges taken away. In California, a minor is allowed to possess either a junior driver’s permit, a learner’s permit, a provisional license with a completed driver's education course or a provisional license without a driver's education course. These licenses are meant to keep young drivers safe as well as affording them considerable amounts of time within which they can become better drivers. However, an infraction may lead to these licenses being suspended for up to 12 months depending on the extent of the criminal offense. In cases where the minors do not already possess a driver's’ licenses, one-year delays aimed at preventing them from acquiring licenses may be imposed.

In addition, if the minor was the legal owner of the car, the car may be impounded for up to thirty days.

Legal Defenses for Drinking Alcohol in a Motor Vehicle Charge

In regards to California law, a qualified criminal attorney can easily represent defendants by considering the following common legal defenses.

The Drink Was Found in the Vehicle’s Trunk

Under California law, any open containers found in a motor vehicle on any of the state’s highways automatically leads to an infraction charge. However, as stated above, if the alcohol is found in the trunk of the motor vehicle, then there are no grounds for a conviction according to the law. Additionally, the code stipulates that convictions are also impossible where the alcohol was found in locked containers. For the above-stated scenarios, all charges ought to be automatically dropped.

The Absence of Probable Cause

Probable cause refers to a satisfactory reason based on identifiable facts to be certain that a given criminal behavior has taken place, or that a specific item is connected with the said crime. In order for police officers to make arrests and subsequently initiate charges against any suspect, probable cause has to exist, especially where no warrants of arrest had previously been issued. This means that before police officers make arrests, they are expected to possess facts that can then be presented before a judge. In the absence of such facts, the charges presented against the suspect in question are consequently dropped.

For instance, if an individual is arrested while taking beer inside a car situated on a private estate, then a police officer has no probable cause to make the arrest. Under state law, private estates do not qualify as highways. Therefore, any evidence that is collected without probable cause becomes inadmissible in court. Such cases are automatically dropped.

The Alcohol Was Discovered After an Unauthorized Search and Seizure

The 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution protects US citizens from being subjected to unauthorized search and seizures by law enforcement personnel. This means that before a police officer decides to arrest an individual, the following conditions must be met:

  1. As stated above, there has to be probable cause before the search is done,

  2. The law enforcement officer has to arrest the suspect for another violation, such as running a red light before they go ahead to inspect the vehicle in question for open containers,

  3. The owner of the vehicle has to provide consent to the officer to search the vehicle.

In case any of these conditions are not met, there lies a possibility that the collected evidence cannot be used to initiate criminal charges against suspects.

The Drink Was Seized Inside a Limousine

The law allows passengers to drink alcohol while inside limousines and other commercial vehicles such as taxis. However, this privilege only applies to the passengers inside these motor vehicles. Therefore, it is unlawful for drivers of such commercial vehicles to partake in alcohol consumption while on the state’s highways.

The law also states that minors are not allowed inside these vehicles when there are open containers present. In cases where arrests are made owing to the presence of minors, reference can be made regarding ways in which open containers should be stored as stated above.

Related Offenses

Driving Under the Influence (DUI)

It is against the law in California to drive while under alcohol intoxication. Under normal circumstances, the DUI charge can accompany other charges such as drinking while inside a motor vehicle. This would, however, occur if the police officers found open containers inside the said motor vehicle. DUI charges may lead to the custody of suspects charged with drinking while in a motor vehicle.

For instance, while arresting a DUI suspect, a police officer may come across open containers not stored appropriately inside the motor vehicle. In such a scenario, the suspect would likely serve a two-day jail time. The penalties would be worse if the suspect were under the legal drinking age of 21.

Being Drunk in Public

Public intoxication in itself is not against the law in California. Nevertheless, an individual may be arrested for being drunk in public areas when they cause public disturbances or when they endanger their own wellbeing or that of other citizens. This charge is classified as a misdemeanor and penalties include hefty fines, probation, or jail time.

Driving While in Possession of Cannabis

According to Vehicle Code 23222(b), it is against the law in the state of California to drive a motor vehicle in the possession of cannabis. Although marijuana is considered a controversial drug in the country, the penalty for the criminal offense is relatively lenient compared to drinking in a motor vehicle. Having marijuana in a motor vehicle is also considered an infraction, and carries a maximum penalty of a $100 fine.

Finding a California Criminal Attorney near Me

It has been shown that the charge of drinking in a motor vehicle is considered an infraction, and as such, attracts lesser penalties compared to other criminal offenses. For minors, however, these charges ought to be taken seriously considering that it is illegal for individuals less than 21 years of age to engage in alcohol consumption in public. Our lawyers can help you in such cases. California’s open container laws offer offenders a number of common legal defenses that can be used in a court of law. It is our duty to ensure that all our clients thoroughly cover any events that precede impending arrests. In case you or your loved ones are faced with charges relating to Drinking Alcohol in a Motor Vehicle, our attorneys are always willing and ready to help. Call our office for assistance today at 760-691-1551 and talk to one of our representatives. Our lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call our Vista criminal attorney today!