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Drinking Alcohol in a Motor Vehicle in California

Having a "drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle" case in Downey can be very stressful. Drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle is prohibited in the city of Downey and the state of California. Drinking as a passenger or drinking in a parked car generally has lower penalties and less social stigma than driving while under the influence (DUI). However, many people are surprised to learn about this confusing law that prohibits drinking alcohol in a car.

If you are accused of drinking in a car, hiring a skilled DUI-defense attorney can be the best way to protect your rights, your interests, and your future. Los Angeles DUI defense lawyer William S. Kroger can help.

Charges for Drinking Alcohol in a Motor Vehicle in Downey, California

Drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle is prohibited in the Downey, California under California Vehicle Code 23221.

  • Section (a) of this statute states, “a driver shall not drink any alcoholic beverage… while driving a motor vehicle upon a highway.”
  • However, section (b) of this statute extends that prohibition to any passengers in a motor vehicle.

A violation of this law is an infraction, making it the lowest level offense in the state. An infraction is a lesser offense than a misdemeanor or felony criminal charge.

Elements of Drinking Alcohol in a Motor Vehicle

If you are facing an accusation of drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle, the prosecutor will have to prove three things beyond a reasonable doubt in order for you to be convicted:

  • You were either a driver or a passenger in a motor vehicle,
  • The motor vehicle was on a highway, and
  • You were drinking an alcoholic beverage.

Some aspects of these elements are vague or can be interpreted in surprising ways that can make or break your case. All of them offer a chance to challenge the evidence presented by law enforcement in court.

Drivers, Passengers, and Riders

The terms of Vehicle Code 23221 make it clear that you are not allowed to drink alcohol if you are either driving a motor vehicle or if you are a passenger in one.

However, another traffic law, California Vehicle Code 23229, explicitly states that riders in properly-licensed buses, taxis, or limousines are allowed to drink while in the vehicle. This lets people who have hired a party bus or rented a limousine for a wine tour to drink alcohol in the vehicle while it is on the road.

What is a “Motor Vehicle”?

An important piece of the puzzle that is the law against drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle is what is meant by the phrase motor vehicle. There are some obvious answers – it clearly covers cars and trucks, and obviously does not cover people who are just walking – but also a lot of gray area in between.

Legal Definition of a "Motor Vehicle"

Most of these questionable situations are resolved by California Vehicle Code 415, which defines “motor vehicle” for the rest of the traffic code. This statute defines a motor vehicle as a “vehicle that is self-propelled.” However, some self-propelled vehicles are explicitly excluded, such as:

  • A self-propelled wheelchair or;
  • Motorized tricycles or quadricycles, if they are operated by someone whose physical disability prevents them from walking

Therefore, you can face charges for drinking alcohol while in a motor vehicle if you are arrested while using, for example, a Segway or an electric scooter, but not a bicycle.

Legal Definition of a “Highway”

Another commonly misconstrued term in the California Vehicle Code is the word highway. Contrary to typical usage, a highway is not just an interstate freeway or parkway, like I-110. Instead, it is any roadway that is owned and maintained by the government, and that is held out for public use.

As a result, drinking alcohol while driving a motor vehicle violates the law if you are on any road in California, all the way from an interstate freeway to a major route, like Route 134, to a residential side street. Only when you turn off the street and into your driveway or other private property are you allowed to drink alcohol while in the vehicle.

Alcohol Beverages

While the purpose of California Vehicle Code 23221 is clearly to keep people in cars from getting intoxicated while behind the wheel, the law goes further than that: It prohibits drivers and passengers from drinking any beverage that has alcohol in it. This includes rum and whiskey and beer and also includes most kinds of cough syrup and even mouthwash.

Penalties for a Conviction for Drinking Alcohol While in a Motor Vehicle in Downey, California

If you are arrested, accused of drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle, and end up being convicted on the charge, the offense is an infraction – less than a felony or a misdemeanor. This means that the only penalties that you can face for a conviction of drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle are a fine of up to $250. 

However, a charge of drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle often does not come alone: Other DUI-related charges typically accompany it. Additionally, if police find an open container of alcohol in your vehicle, they will likely search the rest of it after your arrest and the impoundment of the vehicle. This can lead to further charges, particularly if there are drugs in the car.

Finally, the penalties for drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle can become far more severe if you are either a commercial driver or are under the age of 21.

For commercial drivers, the blemish that the infraction puts on your driving record can be a difficult one to explain to your employer and can make it far more difficult to secure a position as a driver if you ever need another job. Transportation companies from trucking corporations to taxi services take DUIs very seriously and can refuse to hire you if they think you are more likely to drive while under the influence than another applicant. And in today's highly competitive job market, there are almost always other applicants to choose from.

For underage drivers, though, the prognosis is much worse. If you are underage and are accused of drinking an alcoholic beverage in your vehicle, you will also face charges for underage drinking, as well as for DUI.

In California, drivers under the age of 21 have a legal limit of 0.01% blood alcohol content (BAC). If you are found to be at or above this limit – which is almost guaranteed if you were drinking alcohol in the vehicle – you will be charged with a civil offense for violating California Vehicle Code 23136, which carries a one-year license suspension.

If you had a BAC at or above 0.05%, it violates California Vehicle Code 23140, which comes with a $100 fine, a one-year license suspension, and mandatory alcohol classes.

Even if you were not drinking the alcoholic beverage, if you were underage and were transporting alcohol in your car, you can still break California Vehicle Code 23224 if you knew the alcohol was in your car, were not transporting the alcohol in the course of employment, or were not accompanied by an adult or following instructions from your parents or guardian.

Legal Defenses to Drinking Alcohol in a Motor Vehicle in Downey, California

There are, however, plenty of different legal defenses that you can raise to combat a charge of drinking alcohol while driving. These charges rely heavily on the perception of the police officer who made the arrest, so challenging their testimony in court can be an effective way to overcome the allegations being lodged against you.

It Was Not Alcohol

One of the most effective defenses against a charge of drinking alcohol in your vehicle is by showing that the container that the police officer thought was beer, wine, or alcohol was actually something else, like soda. Many charges for drinking alcohol while driving stem from traffic stops conducted at night, when it is more difficult for police to see what is really in a container.

Illegal Traffic Stop

Police are not allowed to pull over drivers just because they feel like it. They need to have an articulable suspicion that a crime is happening or is about to happen to pull someone over and execute a search and seizure. If a police officer pulls you over to the side of the road and begins asking questions to search for evidence of a crime, and he or she did not have a reason to initiate the traffic stop, the evidence that they uncover can be excluded from court, drastically diminishing the power of the prosecutor's case.

Downey DUI-Defense Lawyer William S. Kroger

William S. Kroger is a Downey DUI-defense and Downey drug defense attorney in the City of Downey. If you have been pulled over in or near the city of Downey and are accused of violating one of the many DUI laws in the state of California, having him on your side can be the best way to ensure your rights and your interests are being protected. Contact him online or call attorney Kroger at his Los Angeles law office at (323) 655-5700 for the legal help you need to protect your future.

Contact William S. Kroger Today

If you are in need of an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Los Angeles, CA who is proficient in marijuana, drug & criminal law, there’s simply no better attorney than William S. Kroger. Contact Me

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