Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib

DUIs, Public Intoxication, and Open Containers: Understanding California’s Alcohol Crimes


While California has relatively permissive laws for many substances, this does not extend to alcohol. The state has strict regulations dictating where alcohol can be consumed, how it can be transported, and how much can be drunk in public. By their nature, these laws often overlap. However, the penalties vary significantly. 

If you’ve been charged with one or more alcohol crimes in California, it’s crucial to understand how these charges intersect. Let’s break down the three most common charges: public intoxication, open containers, and DUIs.

Alcohol Crimes in California

An alcohol crime is a criminal offense directly related to possessing or drinking alcohol. If you are over the age of 21, there are three big offenses that you may be charged with: being drunk in public, driving while intoxicated, and having an open container of alcohol in your car. You can be charged with one, two, or all three crimes for the same incident. However, the three charges are treated very differently under state law. Here’s how they work:

Open Container Laws

You probably know that it’s illegal to drink and drive. But did you know it’s against the law even to have an open container of alcohol in the passenger compartment of your car? If you’re in a vehicle, you cannot have an open can of beer, bottle of wine or liquor, or mixed drink. It does not matter whether you drink it or just bring some beverages to a friend’s house – it’s a crime. The only exceptions are for hired vehicles like taxis or limousines. 

Possessing open alcoholic beverages in a car is typically an infraction, a step below a misdemeanor. It is normally only punishable by a ticket and a fine of up to $250. However, if a driver or passenger is under 21, it becomes a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and fines of up to $1000. 

This restriction is intended to reduce the likelihood that people drink while driving. If you need to transport open alcohol containers, keep them in your trunk to avoid a ticket. Defenses against this charge include:

  • The beverage was not alcoholic
  • The police performed an illegal search on your vehicle
  • There was no probable cause for the police to pull you over

Public Intoxication Laws

It is not illegal to have a few drinks in public. That would put every bar in California out of business. However, California Penal Code 647f makes it unlawful to be intoxicated to the point of being unable to care for the safety of themselves or others. This law includes intoxication due to alcohol and other controlled or illegal substances. 

A public intoxication conviction requires the prosecution to prove three factors:

  • Public location: You must be intoxicated in a public place, which the law defines as a location that is open and accessible to anyone. Examples include city sidewalks, public bars, cars parked on public streets, and your front porch. 
  • Voluntary intoxication: You must be “willfully under the influence” of a substance to be convicted of public intoxication. If you did not know you were consuming an intoxicant or someone forced or misled you into consuming the substance, you are not voluntarily intoxicated. 
  • Interference or obstruction: There is no blood alcohol content level required for a drunk in public conviction. This is a major difference when comparing DUIs vs. public intoxication charges. Instead, you must be interfering with or obstructing a public area. Passing out on the sidewalk counts as obstruction, for example, and threatening people walking by your house may be interference. However, you can be blackout drunk if you aren’t getting in the way.

If the prosecution proves all three elements, you may face up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. The best defenses against this charge include:

  • You were not in public
  • You were not interfering with a “public way”
  • You were involuntarily intoxicated by unexpected medication side effects, an unknown intoxicant, or drugs added to your drink

Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Laws

DUIs are the most well-known alcohol crime by far. In California, operating a vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant is illegal. Depending on the circumstances, it may be a misdemeanor or a felony. There are three reasons you may be charged with a DUI while operating a vehicle:

  • Having a blood alcohol content (BAC) higher than 0% and being under 21: It is always illegal for people under 21 to drink and drive, period. 
  • Having a BAC higher than 0.08%: It’s always illegal to drive a car if your BAC breaks this threshold, regardless of age or impairment.
  • Having a BAC higher than 0% and demonstrating impaired mental or physical faculties: You may be charged with a DUI even if you’re over 21 and have a BAC below 0.08% if you are behaving erratically or otherwise demonstrate impairment.

If you’re charged with a DUI, you will get negligent operator points added to your license and may even have it revoked. You may also be ordered to attend substance abuse classes or have an ignition lock placed on your car. 

Luckily, you can only be charged with a DUI in California if you put your car in motion. The difference between a DUI and a public intoxication charge may be whether you set your car in drive or not. The best defenses against a DUI include:

  • You were not driving the vehicle
  • You were not impaired or intoxicated
  • The police did not have probable cause to pull you over or make you perform a Breathalyzer test

Get Help Defending Yourself Against Alcohol Charges in California

A DUI conviction could ruin your life. Public intoxication and open container charges are also serious, but the penalties are significantly lower. If you have been charged with one or more alcohol crimes, you should reach out to the Law Offices of M. Gabriela Guraiib in Redwood City, California. Our DUI defense attorneys are prepared to fight to have your charges dropped or reduced. Get in touch today to discuss your charges and take the first step to protect your future.