Following a recent story I wrote about the growler concept taking hold at an urban winery, a commenter asked whether filled growlers can be considered open containers during a traffic stop.
Good question. I posed it to local authorities to get a better understanding of how the state's open-container law might be enforced.
Specifically, California vehicle code section 23225 calls for a citation to be issued to anyone driving with "any bottle, can, or other receptacle containing any alcoholic beverage that has been opened, or a seal broken, or the contents of which have been partially removed, unless the container is kept in the trunk of the vehicle."
Basically, if an open container is anywhere within reach of the driver or passengers — including in the glove box — the law says you get a ticket. However, because growlers are designed to be reusable, even a full growler could be considered to have been open, or have a broken seal.
According to the San Diego district attorney's office, only 101 defendants have been charged with open-container violations in the city of San Diego since the beginning of 2014. Of those, 70 percent were concurrent with a DUI charge, meaning 30 percent were sober drivers in possession of open containers; the DA does not keep records on whether any of those charges involved growlers.
California Highway Patrol public information officer Ray Payton wasn't aware of any statewide policy with regard to growlers. "Sometimes the law has to catch up," he said. Payton further suggested that, "If the officer can prove you are heading back from a brewery and coming home," and "as long as [the growler is] completely full and still sealed the way they seal it [at the brewery], you should be okay…as long as you haven't been drinking."
For the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, Ryan Keim said it “would be a judgment call on the police officer's part." He said most sheriff’s deputies would likely consider "the totality of the circumstances" before issuing a citation, so being able to cooperatively show that the growler has not been opened may be enough to avoid a citation. "That's how we deal with most things," he said. “We look at the whole picture."
San Diego Police Department media relations officer Billy Hernandez said there's no citywide directive but explained the situation succinctly: "An officer that goes by letter of the law can technically cite you because growler is not considered sealed; an officer that goes by spirit of the law would consider that the growler is full and not even address it."
Hernandez, who owns a few growlers himself, offered the best advice: "Carry a roll of electrical tape. When you get your growler filled, tape the top and seal the growler yourself. Place the growler in the back seat or trunk of your car. Now that you’ve brought this to my attention, this is what I’m going to do."