Is it a crime to drive without a license in California?
Yes- driving without a valid driver’s license is considered a criminal offense, not just a mere traffic infringement. Section 125000 of the California Vehicle Code makes driving without a license a criminal misdemeanor. Punishment for violations of Section 125000 may include:
Fines of up to $1,000, plus any additional court fees
Possible time in county jail (not frequently imposed however)
Towing and impoundment of the car that the unlicensed person was operating
What if I had a valid license but forgot to carry it with me?
Note that the Vehicle Code specifies penalties for operating a vehicle without being validly licensed, not simply for driving without a license in your possession at the time of the violation.
If you did have a valid driver’s license (licenses from other states may be acceptable), but simply did not have it in your possession, this is a different violation. This type of infraction is listed under Section 12591 and may be dismissed if you are able to prove that you were validly licensed at the time you were pulled over.
Is this different from driving with a suspended or revoked license?
In California, driving with a suspended or revoked license is a totally different offense than driving without a license. Suspended or revoked licenses are covered in Sections 14601-14611 of the Vehicle Code. The penalties for driving with a suspended or revoked license are more severe than for driving without a license. Penalties may include:
A fine of not less than $300 or greater than $1000
Possible jail time, with a higher maximum sentence period. First time offenders may be subject to jail periods of not less than 5 days or not greater than 6 months
Subsequent repeat convictions will lead to increased penalties
How does the prosecution prove I drove without a license?
The burden of proof is different for driving without a license as opposed to driving with a suspended or revoked license.
Unlike other criminal charges, once the prosecution alleges that the defendant drove without a license, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant to prove that they were validly licensed. This is usually verified by accessing records with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or other similar agencies.
In contrast, if the prosecution alleges that the person drove with a suspended license, the burden of proof remains on the prosecutor. They must further prove that the defendant knew that their license was revoked when they drove.
In other words, it is more difficult for the prosecution to prove driving with a suspended license than it is to prove driving without a license.
How can a lawyer help my case?
For first time offenders, many prosecutors will reduce the criminal charges to an infraction if the defendant is able to secure a license before any court hearings. Since violations of license requirements may possibly result in criminal misdemeanor charges, it is important that you work closely with a lawyer. You may also wish to inquire with an attorney about getting the charges dropped.