In short, a driver’s license serves to certify that the owner of the license has proven that they are capable of safely operating a motor vehicle. It notifies law enforcement personnel that you have been considered competent and able to drive in public. A driver’s license may also note certain restrictions, such as whether you need corrective lenses to drive, as well as denote whether you are an organ donor.

According to California law, driving without a license is illegal; and, driving without a valid driver’s license is considered to be a criminal offense, not just a simple traffic violation. The California Vehicle Code Section 12500(a) states: “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 driver’s license does not have to be issued by the state of California, so long as the license is valid for the type of vehicle being driven.

In every state, operating a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license is illegal and could lead to strict penalties. In California, the act is considered a criminal misdemeanor. However, it is typically a “wobbler” offense. What this means is that a first offense is typically a non-criminal infraction, whereas any subsequent infractions are more likely to be charged as a misdemeanor.

You may get a ticket for driving without a license, or any/all of the following penalties:

  • Fines of up to $250 for the first infraction, and up to $1,000 for subsequent offenses;
  • Possible jail time, of up to six months, to be spent in a county jail;
  • Probation; and/or
  • The towing and impounding of the vehicle being operated by the unlicensed driver.

What if I had a Valid License but Not in My Possession?

Even as a mistake, it is illegal to drive without proof of a valid license. It is also one of the most common driving violations. The consequences for driving without proof of a valid license are generally less harsh than other license violations.

If you had a valid driver’s license, but simply refused to show it to law enforcement, you will likely be cited under California Vehicle Code 12951(b). That section of the Vehicle Code states that you will likely be charged with a criminal misdemeanor, which could include prison time of up to 6 months, fines of up to $1,000, or both. As such, it is important during any moving violation to provide proof of a valid license.

However, it is important to note that the California Vehicle Code punishes those who operate a vehicle without being validly licensed, but not for driving without a license in your possession at the time of the violation. What this means is that if you do have a valid driver’s license, but it is not your possession when you have been pulled over by law enforcement, it is considered to be a different violation altogether.

The most common example of such a scenario is when someone leaves their wallet at home, and they do not realize that they do not have their driver’s license in their possession until they are pulled over for a traffic violation.

Driving without a valid license not in your possession is listed under California Vehicle Code 12951(a), and will be dismissed if you are able to prove that you were validly licensed at the time you were pulled over. The penalties under the code for this type of infraction only include a fine of up to $250, and are dismissed if sufficient proof is shown. However, 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 you are aware of the fact that your driver’s license has been suspended or revoked. Driving with a suspended or revoked license is punishable under Sections 14601–14611 of the Vehicle Code, which carries a misdemeanor charge.

In the state of California, driving with a suspended or revoked license is an entirely different offense than driving without a valid license. The penalties for driving with a suspended or revoked license are more severe than the penalties for driving without a license, depending on the reason why your license was initially suspended or revoked. The most common examples of penalties for driving with a suspended license include:

  • First Offense: Probation sentence of up to three years, a prison sentence of five days to six months to be served in county jail, and fines of $300 up to $1,000; or
  • Second Offense: Probation sentence of up to three years, a prison sentence of ten days to one year to be served in county jail, and fines of $500 up to $2,000.

Remember, the above penalties will likely vary depending on why your license was initially revoked or suspended. An example of this would be if your license was suspended due to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The penalties for such a charge will be more severe than if your license was suspended or revoked due to refusing to submit to a chemical test, or even negligent driving.

Driving with an expired license will generally be seen as an intentional violation of the law, as you are intentionally driving violating the law by knowingly operating your vehicle. As such, driving with an expired license will likely be penalized similarly to driving without a valid license.

Do I Need an Attorney if I’m Facing Driving Without a License Charges?

If you are facing charges related to driving without a license in California, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable criminal lawyer. An experienced criminal defense attorney can better determine the context surrounding the accusation, as well as determine if there are any defenses available to you based on the specifics of your case. Additionally, they will represent you and your rights in court as needed.