A driver’s license is a document which serves to certify that the owner of that license has proven that they are capable of safely operating a motor vehicle. A driver’s license also notifies law enforcement personnel that an individual has been considered competent and able to drive in public.

An individual’s driver’s license may also contain certain restrictions, including whether an individual requires corrective lenses to drive. It also contains other information, such as whether an individual is an organ donor.

Driving without a license is illegal under California law. If an individual drives without a valid driver’s license, it is considered to be a criminal offense instead of just a simple traffic violation.

The California Vehicle Code Section 12500(a) provides, “[a] person may not drive a motor vehicle…unless the person then holds a valid driver’s license issued under this code, except those persons who are expressly exempted under this code.” It is important to note that the individual’s driver’s license does not have to be issued by the State of California, as long as the license is valid for the type of vehicle that the individual is driving.

In every state in the United States, operating a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license is illegal and may lead to strict punishments. In California, driving without a license is considered a misdemeanor.

Driving without a valid driver’s license, however, is typically a wobbler offense. This means that the first offense is typically a non-criminal infraction and any subsequent infractions are likely to be charged as misdemeanors.

An individual may receive a ticket for driving without a license and face one of more of the following penalties:

  • Criminal fines of up to $250 for the first infraction and up to $1,000 in criminal fines for subsequent offenses;
  • Possible jail time of up to six months, to be served in a county jail;
  • Probation; and
  • The towing and impounding of the vehicle that was being operated by the unlicensed driver.

What if I had a Valid Driver’s License but it was not in my Possession?

Even if an individual does so by mistake, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle without proof of a valid license. The consequences an individual may face for driving without proof of a valid driver’s license are typically less harsh than other types of driver’s license violations.

It is important to note, however, that although driving without proof of a driver’s license carries lesser consequences, it should not be taken lightly. In many cases, if it occurs enough times, an individual may accrue enough points on their driver’s license that it will be revoked.

If an individual holds a valid driver’s license but they refuse to show it to law enforcement, they will be cited under California Vehicle Code 12951(b). This section of the California Vehicle Code provides that an individual will likely be charged with a criminal misdemeanor, which may include:

  • Jail time of up to six months;
  • Criminal fines of up to $1,000, or
  • Both.

It is important during any moving violation for an individual to provide proof of a valid driver’s license. It is, however, important to note that the California Vehicle Code punishes an individual who operates a motor vehicle without a valid license but does not punish individuals who drive without a license in their possession at the time of the violation.

In other words, if an individual possesses a valid driver’s license but does not have it in their possession when they are pulled over by law enforcement, it is considered to be a different violation. The most common example of this occurring is when an individual forgets their wallet at home and they do not realize they do not have their driver’s license with them until they are pulled over by law enforcement for a traffic violation.

Operating a motor vehicle without a valid license in an individual’s possession is listed under California Vehicle Code 12951(a). The charges will be dismissed if the individual can prove that they were validly licensed at the time they were pulled over.

The penalties under this code section for this particular infraction include only a fine of up to $250 and the charges being dismissed if sufficient proof is shown. It is important to note, however, that the charges may not be dismissed if the infraction occurs three or more times.

How is Driving with a Suspended or Revoked License Different?

According to the California Vehicle Code 14601, it is a crime to operate a motor vehicle when an individual is aware of the fact that their driver’s license has been suspended or revoked. If an individual operates a motor vehicle with a suspended or revoked license, it is punishable under Section s 14601-14611 of the California Vehicle Code and carries a misdemeanor charge.

Driving with a suspended or revoked license is an entirely different offense than driving without a valid license in the State of California. The penalties for driving with a suspended or revoked license may be more severe than those for driving without a license, depending upon the reason why the individual’s license was initially suspended or revoked.

Examples of penalties for driving with a suspended license may include:

  • For the individual’s first offense:
    • a probation sentence of up to three years;
    • a sentence of five days to six months to be served in county jail; and
    • fines of $300 up to $1,000; or
  • For the individual’s second offense:
    • a probation sentence of up to three years;
    • a sentence of ten days to one year to be served in county jail; and
    • fines of $500 up to $2,000.

It is important to note that the previously discussed penalties will most likely vary depending upon why the individual’s license was initially revoked or suspended. For example, if an individual’s license was suspended due to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the penalties will be more severe than if their license was suspended or revoked because they refused to submit to a chemical test, or for negligent driving.

If an individual drives with an expired driver’s license, it will typically be seen as an intentional violation of the law, as the individual is intentionally violating the law by knowingly operating their motor vehicle. Because of this, driving with an expired driver’s license will likely be penalized similarly to driving without a valid driver’s license.

Examples of when driving without a license will be considered an intentional violation of the law may include:

  • Driving with a suspended license;
  • Driving with a revoked license;
  • Driving with an expired license;
  • Operating a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license and while being under the legal driving age which is the age of 16 in most states;
  • Failing to apply for or to renew a driver license; and
  • Driving with an invalid license for another reason.

Do I Need an Attorney if I am Facing Driving without a License Charges?

It is crucial to have the assistance of a California traffic violation lawyer if you are facing any charges related to operating a motor vehicle without a license in California. Your attorney can review your situation and provide legal advice regarding the charges and possible punishments, determine if any defenses are available in your case, and represent you in court.