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Driving without a License in California

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Is It a Crime to Drive without a License in California?

Yes. In California, driving without a valid driver’s license is considered a criminal offense and not just a simple traffic violation Section 125000 of the California Vehicle Code makes driving without a license a criminal misdemeanor. Punishments for violating this section include:

  • Fines of up to $1,000, in addition to court fees
  • Probation
  • Towing and impoundment of the car that the unlicensed person was operating
  • Possible jail time, although this is rare

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.

What If I Had a Valid License but Did Not Have It with Me?

The California Vehicle Code punishes operating a vehicle without being validly licensed, not for driving without a license in your possession at the time of the violation.   

If you did have a valid driver’s license, 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?

Yes. In California, driving with a suspended or revoked license is an entirely different offense than driving without a license. Driving with a suspended or revoked license is punishable under Sections 14601-14611 of the Vehicle Code. Moreover, the penalties for driving with a suspended or revoked license are more severe than for driving without a license. Penalties include:

  • A fine at least $300, but no greater than $1000.
  • Possible jail time. First time offenders may be subject to jail periods of at least 5 days, but no greater than 6 months.
  • Subsequent repeat convictions will result in increased penalties.

How Can 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. 

By contrast, if the prosecution alleges that the person drove with a suspended license, the burden of proof remains on the prosecutor, who must further prove that the defendant knew that their license was revoked when they drove. Put simply, 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?

Since violations of license requirements may result in criminal misdemeanor charges, which carry serious criminal penalties, it is important that you work closely with a California lawyer. An experienced criminal defense attorney may help you get charges dropped. 

Photo of page author Matthew Izzi

, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 11-19-2017 11:46 PM PST

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