California Alcohol Laws

This page will help you understand California alcohol laws and avoid expensive fines or even jail. Not to mention time and embarrassment.

California alcohol laws apply to both residents and visitors. Visitors may think California’s laws are the same as those at home. But alcohol laws differ across the country. Even within the state itself. And not knowing the law is not a defense.


          1. Minimum Age Laws
          2. Other California Alcohol Laws
          3. Resources
          4. Legal Advice

I. Minimum Age Laws

Young people may want to work part-time. Many jobs are in tourism. And many involve working with alcohol. What is the age needed to be a server of alcohol? For being a bartender? Or for selling alcohol to drink off-site?

Only adults may work as bartenders or as servers at venues that sell alcohol for drinking on-site. That is, they must be 18 or older. There is no age requirement for selling alcohol in stores for use off-site. But a manager must be present.

California alcohol laws let those of any age below 21 have alcohol in private locations. Except in vehicles. They may drink if a parent, guardian, spouse or other relative age 21 or older is present. Many parents do this to teach moderation in drinking.

It is illegal for those under 21 to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) over 0.01%.

II. Other California Alcohol Laws

A. Selling Alcohol

Retailers may sell alcoholic beverages by the drink or package from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. of the following day. But they may not sell to any of these.

    1. Those under 21, including adults.
    2. Obviously intoxicated persons.
    3. Any “habitual drunkard.”

People under 21 may be in most business serving alcohol. That includes beauty salons and barber shops that serve free wine or beer. Businesses may only offer such beverages to their customers age 21 or older. And they may serve only six ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer per customer.

Retailers may not employ anyone whose clothing exposing the “cleft of the buttocks.” Nor “any portion of the female breast below the top of the areola.”

According to California alcohol laws it’s illegal to sell powdered alcohol. Learn more by reading the law.

B. Buying Alcohol

It’s illegal for anyone under age 21 to buy, or attempt to buy, any alcoholic beverage. But they may attempt to buy to help police entrap clerks.

It is also illegal for anyone to buy alcoholic beverages between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m.

In addition, drinking alcohol below the age of 21 is a crime.

Customers of restaurants may take home partially consumed bottles of wine. This law is to discourage over-drinking to avoid wasting the remaining wine.

Those under 21 may drink in a private location with a parent, guardian, or spouse age 21 or older. Vehicles are not private locations.

A person age 21 might give alcohol to someone under that age. They might think they are being a good friend. But a conviction can be harmful. It tends to be “unlawfully dealing with a minor.” Or a similar evil-sounding charge. It may keep the person from being a police officer, teacher, lawyer, social worker, etc. Ignorance is no protection.

C. Driving and Alcohol

California alcohol laws It’s a violation of California alcohol laws to drive while impaired.

This may result from consuming too much alcohol from any source. For instance, it might be from beverages and/or meds such as cough syrup. It might be from drugs (including prescription drugs). Or it might be from any combination of alcohol and drugs.

The legal BAC limits vary. For drivers age 21 or older, it’s 0.08% or higher. It’s 0.01% for those under 21 or on DUI probation. And it’s 0.04% for commercial drivers.

Most states set the BAC limit at 0.02% for those under 21. They do this for at least three reasons. First, breath testers are not accurate. In fact, they don’t actually measure BAC. They only estimate it.

Second, everyone produces alcohol in their bodies 24/7. Third, many meds and foods contain alcohol. Even bread does.

So setting the limit at 0.02% reduces the chances of convicting innocent people

DUI Conviction Guidelines

The facts and the judge hearing the case determine the specific penalties. But these are general guidelines.

First DUI Conviction

The penalties for a first DUI conviction are these. Jail for at least 96 hours. But it could be up to six months. A fine of $390 to $1,000, plus surcharges. The court suspends the drivers licens for six months. But the judge may grant a temporary restricted license. Also the offender may have to pay for an ignition interlock device (IID).

california alcohol lawsAn IID prevents the vehicle from starting if there is alcohol in the driver’s breath. The state won’t reinstate the driving license without proof of increased insurance. It also requires proof the offender has completed a “driving under the influence” program. One that is approved by the state.

Second DUI Conviction

These are the penalties for a second DUI conviction. Jail from 90 days up to a year. The fine is $390 to $1,000, plus surcharges. The state suspends driving licenses for one year. It may also order the offender to pay for the installation of an IID. And it won’t reinstate the license without proof of increased insurance. In addition, it requires completion of the “driving under the influence” program.

Third DUI Conviction

california alcohol lawsFor a third offense, the penalties are jail for 120 days to one year. The range of fines is the same. In addition, the state labels the offender a “habitual traffic offender” for three years.

The state suspends the drivers license for two years. The court may require an IID. It won’t reinstated the license without proof of increased insurance. It also requires proof of “driving under the influence” program completion.

Fourth DUI Conviction

For a fourth conviction, the state jails offenders for at least 180 days. But it could be as long as one year. The range of fines is the same. The state revokes the drivers license for three years. It labels the convicted a “habitual traffic offender” for the same length of time. License reinstatement requires the same proof.

Driver Rights

california alcohol lawsAll drivers have a US Constitutional right to decline a chemical test. But the state punishes those who use their right. The penalty is suspension of the driving license for at least one year.

For using their right a second time the suspension is for two years. The suspension is the same for drivers with a reckless-driving or DUI conviction within ten years.

The penalty jumps to a three-year suspension for a third use of this right. Or for drivers with more than one reckless-driving or DUI conviction within ten years.

Field Sobriety Tests

california alcohol lawsBut Note. None of these penalties apply to refusing to take a field sobriety test. These tests are very inaccurate. In fact, about one-third of completely sober people fail them. That is, people with a BAC of 0.00%. And that’s in an indoor ideal environment.

Many drivers are pulled over at night. Patrol lights are flashing. The testing surface is uneven. They’re nervous. They have a hard time thinking. Not following directions perfectly can lead to failure.

So lawyers strongly urge people never to take field sobriety tests. Police have clever arguments to convince drivers that it’s in their interest to take them. But it never is. Sometimes they say it’s the law. But it isn’t. While investigating, police can legally lie. So don’t fall for it. Lawyers say to politely refuse. And to do so as long as needed.

Learn much more at Never Take a Field Sobriety Test Say DUI Lawyers.

Alcohol in Vehicles

California alcohol lawsIt’s a violation of California alcohol laws for anyone of any age to drink in their vehicle. Any open alcohol container must be in the trunk. It’s against the law to have an opened alcoholic container in the glove box.

But passengers may have open alcohol containers in a bus, taxi, camper, or motor home.

Drivers under 21 may not have alcohol in their vehicle unless with a parent. Or with another person specified by California alcohol laws. And the alcohol must not be open. Yet such drivers may carry alcoholic beverages in closed containers. That’s while working for someone with an off-site liquor sales license.

california alcohol lawsFor a violation, the state may impound the vehicle for up to 30 days. It may issue a fine up to $1,000. Also it may suspend the driving license for one year.

Courts convict drivers under 21 of having a BAC of 0.01% or higher. Or of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. The penalty is revocation of the driving license for one year. The offender must also complete the education portion of a DUI program. A later conviction leads to a longer DUI program.

The state uses alcohol- or drug-related convictions of vehicle and boat operators. It does this to increase penalties for later violations.

D. Boating and Alcohol

california alcohol lawsIt’s illegal to operate a motorized boat under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. This also includes riding water skis, aquaplanes, or similar devices.

A BAC of .08% or higher proves intoxication. But the state may use a BAC between .05% and .08%, with other evidence, to prove intoxication.

Those under 21 with a BAC of .01% or more may not operate any motorized vessel. Again, this also includes riding water skis, aquaplanes, or similar devices.

California has no “open container” law for boats

Conviction Penalties

Conviction for operating a vessel while under the influence may lead to these punishments.

    • Force the offender to take and pass a boating safety course.
    • May lead to suspension or revocation the vehicle driver’s license. Depending on the facts and the judge. This ranges from six months to five years.
    • Could lead to one year of jail and/or a fine up to $1,000.
    • Injuring another person could lead to one year jail and a fine up to $5,000.
    • Causing death to another person could lead to 10 years in prison.

The state punishes those who use their constitutional right to decline a chemical BAC test. If convicted, they face increased fines and jail time.

III. Resources on California Alcohol Laws

IV. Advice about Drinking Laws of California

As in other states, California alcohol laws can be confusing. An example is the California Alcoholic Beverage Control Act. It’s 431 pages of dense legalese. It’s a joy for bureaucrats and lawyers. But a nightmare for everyone else.

Also laws change. Their interpretation can change. They may conflict. Do not rely on this site. Nor on any other site.

And be very wary of advice from friends. Or neighbors. Colleagues. Even family members. Smile and thank them. Then ignore what they say. Their advice is worth what you pay for it. That is, nothing. california alcohol laws

For advice about California alcohol laws, see an expert. That is, a lawyer holding a license in the state. The State Bar is a good resource. It has a free lawyer referral service.