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Ridesharing and Open Container Laws in San Diego

By Criminal Defense Attorney on December 10, 2017

Springtime has arrived in San Diego and while this means getting together with family, it also means parties, or just meeting at a friend’s house to share some drinks. Many will choose to carpool or take a ridesharing service such as Uber or Lyft to get to and from safely.

This seems like a responsible decision on the part of the passenger, and it is. But what responsibilities does the driver have? Specifically, can a driver be held responsible if his passengers are drinking in the vehicle on the way to the party?

Open Container Laws in California

In California, it is illegal to drive with open containers of alcohol. This is a strict law and could even extend to empty bottles that are being taken back to a liquor store for a refund! Alcohol containers can be carried in a vehicle, but they must be sealed and unopened. Otherwise, they are to be stored in the trunk or in a place where drivers cannot reach them while the vehicle is in motion.

While passengers caught drinking or carrying open containers will not be dealt with as seriously as drivers, there is a fine of $250 that can be levied against both the driver and the passenger if someone is caught breaking this law. The passenger could receive a fine for carrying the open container, while the driver could receive the fine because, under the law, he or she is responsible passengers at all times.

In addition to fines, a person’s car insurance rates may increase if he is caught breaking California’s open container law, as that could indicate he is at a higher risk of causing an accident.

However, the law becomes a bit fuzzy when it comes to Uber drivers and their passengers.

Are Open Containers Allowed in Uber or Lyft Vehicles?

There is one exception to California’s open container law. That is that passengers in taxis, private buses, limousines, and other hired vehicles can have open containers of alcohol. While that seems clear, it is not — ridesharing programs such as Uber are not the same as taxis.

This is largely because drivers in a taxi service are not typically driving their own cars. They are driving a company car that they return after each shift, and that car is heavily insured. So is the driver, while he or she is driving it. Uber drivers, on the other hand, are driving their own vehicles and do not have the same insurance that taxi drivers do.

Rideshare drivers are still driving a hired vehicle, even if California law may not explicitly mention Uber or Lyft. Still, this is one more gray area of the law.

While an Uber vehicle is certainly for hire while transporting passengers, there is a good chance that the vehicle is used for more than that in the driver’s life. After all, many rideshare drivers take that job not as a primary source of income, but as a complementary one to their day job. This could have lawmakers and authorities arguing that the vehicle has mixed use and therefore cannot be considered “for hire” as other taxi and limousine services would be.

To add to the confusion, Uber as a company is not much clearer on whether or not passengers are allowed to drink while in a vehicle! Under the legal terms on the website, it simply says to “follow all local laws.” Lyft, on the other hand, has a zero-tolerance policy for passengers: “Be sure to toss that adult beverage before your driver arrives. Open containers are not allowed in the car, and turning a blind eye to them can result in deactivation from our platform.”

The chances are that passengers who get a ride from Uber and want to kick back a few drinks while getting to their destination will not face any consequences for doing so. Chances are that the driver will not, either. But again, this can be a tricky situation.

After all, with no registration or car number to show, anyone could say that he is operating an Uber if he gets pulled over after a friend decided to open a container of alcohol on the way to a bar.

What Should Uber Drivers Do If Passengers Want to Drink?

In Uber’s legal and community guidelines, it states that passengers and drivers must respect each other at all times. Drivers are given a fairly long leash when it comes to deciding what will and will not be allowed in their vehicles. While they are not allowed to discriminate, they are allowed to turn down passengers who are rude, make unwanted contact with the driver, or smoke in the vehicle if the driver does not want them to.

Because the law is unclear, an Uber driver’s best bet to keep himself and his passengers safe is to not allow open containers of alcohol in the vehicle. And in the eyes of the law, even when the law is not as clear as it should be, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Have a legal problem or questions about your DUI situation? Speak to the Vista attorneys at JD Law. Your consultation is free, and we will guide you in the right direction. Call (760) 630-2000.

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