Simply put, yes. It is important to note that in every state, operating a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license is illegal and could lead to harsh penalties. Similarly in California, driving without a valid driver’s license is considered a criminal offense, not just a simple traffic violation.

Specifically, 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.” Importantly, 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.

Thus, driving without a valid license in California is considered a criminal misdemeanor. However, typically the crime of driving without a license in California is a “wobbler” offense. This means that a first offense is usually a non-criminal infraction, while subsequent infractions are more likely to be charged as a misdemeanor.

Other punishments for violating the Vehicle Code may include:

  • Fines of up to $250 for a first infraction, or up to $1,000 for subsequent offenses;
  • Possible jail time of up to 6 months in county jail;
  • Towing and impoundment of the vehicle that the unlicensed person was operating.

As noted above, for first time offenders, many prosecutors will reduce the criminal charges to a non-criminal infraction, especially if the defendant is able to secure a license before any court hearings.

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

Driving without proof of a valid license, whether by mistake or not, is illegal and one of the most common driving violations. The penalties for driving without proof of a valid license are generally less harsh than other license violations. However, the California Vehicle Code punishes persons operating a vehicle without being validly licensed, not for driving without a license in your possession at the time of the violation.  

Therefore, if you did have a valid driver’s license, but simply did not have it in your possession at the time of your citation, this is a different violation altogether. This type of infraction 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 as noted above are dismissed if proof of a valid driver’s license is shown. However, the charges may not be dismissed if the infraction occurs three or more times.

On the other hand, if you had a valid driver’s license, but simply refused to show it to the police officer, then you will likely be cited under California Vehicle Code 12951(b). Under that section of the Vehicle Code, you will be charged with a criminal misdemeanor, which may include prison time of up to 6 months, fines of up to $1,000, or both. Thus, it is important during any moving violation to provide proof of a valid license.

How is Driving with a Suspended or Revoked License Different?

Under California Vehicle Code 14601, it is a crime to operate a motor vehicle when you know that your driver’s license has been suspended or revoked. In California, driving with a suspended or revoked license is an entirely different offense than driving without a valid license. Driving with a suspended or revoked license is punishable under Sections 14601–14611 of the Vehicle Code, which carries a misdemeanor charge.

The penalties for driving with a suspended or revoked license are more severe than for driving without a license, depending on why your license was suspended or revoked in the first place. Common penalties for driving with a suspended license include:

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

It is important to remember that the above penalties may vary depending on why your license was originally revoked or suspended. For instance, if you license was suspended due to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, the penalties will be more severe than if your license was suspended or revoked due to refusing to submit to a chemical test or negligent driving.

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

As can be seen, driving without a license in California may be a criminal misdemeanor with substantial fines or possible imprisonment. Therefore, if you find yourself in a situation where you have been charged with driving without a license, it may be in your best interests to promptly consult with a well qualified and experienced criminal defense attorney.

An experienced criminal defense attorney will help you assert your best legal defenses to your charges, if any, and may even get your charges dropped.