Drinking Alcohol in a Motor Vehicle - VC 23221

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Every state, including California, has a law against drunk driving. There are other specific laws related to alcohol and driving that can also result in severe consequences. One of those laws is the “open container law” of Vehicle Code 23221. 

While a violation of the open container law might not result in penalties that are as severe as those for driving under the influence, anyone facing allegations of violating this statute should speak to an attorney about how to protect themselves. 

Driving with an Open Container Defined

California Vehicle Code 23221 makes it illegal for passengers and drivers to consume alcohol while in a motor vehicle on a highway. The law may surprise some people because it outlaws drinking in a car, even if the person consuming the alcohol is not the driver. It is possible that the police arrest a passenger for this violation and not a driver. 

While the law defines motor vehicles as anything “self-propelled,” there are exceptions for buses, limousines, and taxis. Passengers in these commercial vehicles do not violate the law by consuming alcohol, which is why businesses can open party buses that serve alcohol to passengers. 

Also, drivers and passengers traveling on private land cannot violate this law because it only applies to public roadways.

The Open Container Law is Different than a DUI

A driver or passenger who commits this legal infraction will not face time in jail. The penalty for violations of VC 23221 is a $250 fine. While the penalty might not seem too harsh, it is likely worth fighting against it if the allegations are false. 

The Law Also Applies to Marijuana

Marijuana is legal in California, but drugs and driving still do not mix. Drivers and passengers who smoke or ingest any marijuana products while driving in a motor vehicle will face the same infraction and monetary fine as those caught with open alcohol containers. 

Minors Face Harsh Penalties

California will treat minors and anyone under 21 years old differently when it comes to violations of VC 23221. A driver under 21 years old who knowingly travels with an alcoholic beverage in the car can face charges for violating Vehicle Code 23224, which is a different law. Passengers under the age of 21 who knowingly travel in a car with alcohol also violate this law. Unlike VC 23221, VC 23224 is a misdemeanor that can lead to a six-month jail term and a $1000 fine. 

Of course, the laws regarding driving under the influence are also more severe for minors. While a driver who is 21 years old or older violates the open container law but does not have a blood alcohol level that violates the DUI laws, they will face a fine. The legal limit in California for drivers is .08 percent alcohol per volume. If a driver is under 21, any amount of alcohol in their system, even .01 percent qualifies as a DUI. 

DUI Laws in California

Driving with a BAC of .08 percent alcohol or higher is a violation of California’s DUI laws. As mentioned, drivers under the legal limit for drinking cannot have even a BAC of .01 percent. Commercial drivers can face a DUI for a BAC of .04 percent. 

While the legal limit of .08 percent is a well-known standard for drivers in most parts of the United States, technically, a driver may face a DUI charge even if their BAC is below that level. In California, driving while impaired is illegal. Prosecutors may argue that a driver violated the law even with a low BAC. In many cases, the state may charge a person whose BAC is above .05 percent and below .08 percent as long as they have evidence suggesting that the driver showed signs of intoxication. 

Police look for a variety of evidence that a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and such factors may lead to a conviction. In addition to chemical tests, watery red eyes, slurred speech, failure of field sobriety tests, and other indications can serve to convict a driver for a DUI in California. 

Defending Against Alcohol-Related Violations in California 

If a driver allegedly violated VC 23221, they may be able to defend against the charges. In many cases, the police may lack compelling evidence against the person. Sometimes the only evidence an officer may have is that they believe that they saw the person consuming alcohol. The officer could have made an error. 

Depending on the facts involved, other defenses might be available to the defendant. 

If a driver faces DUI charges, the consequences are far more severe, and it will be crucial to have a strong legal defense. Some DUI charges are felonies with a possibility of years in prison. 

Drugs and Driving in California

While VC 23221 applies to marijuana, it is not the only driving charges related to that drug or other intoxicating substances. Marijuana intoxication can also lead to a DUI in California. Other drugs, including illegal substances and prescription medications, can result in DUI charges in the state as well. 

Drugged driving is becoming a bigger problem in California, so police are learning to look out for the signs of intoxication by substances other than alcohol. When it comes to drugs, the legal limit is not necessarily clear-cut as it is with alcohol. Tests to determine a person’s BAC are effective and, while not infallible, are fairly reliable. It is not yet possible to perform tests of drug concentration levels and to equate the amount of various substances in a person’s system to their ability to operate a motor vehicle.

Many drugs remain in a person’s system for longer than alcohol, even when they no longer impact the person’s ability to operate a vehicle. Anyone facing these charges should speak to an attorney about protecting their rights and defending against the charges. 

While VC 23221 might not be the most serious alcohol and driving-related charge in California, it is a good idea for anyone facing charges to seek legal advice and learn about the potential consequences.