“I forgot my wallet at home, am I going to get arrested?” 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. Most people have been in the aforementioned situation where they forgot their driver’s license somewhere when they were driving a car.

However, driving without a license may mean two different things. Driving without a license may mean operating a motor vehicle without a valid license or driving a motor vehicle without proof of a driver’s license.

The two situations are entirely different. Operating a motor vehicle without proof of a driver’s license, such as forgetting to physically have your driver’s license before driving, is a lesser offense than the other, and will generally not result in an arrest being made on the scene.

In contrast, operating a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license is a much more serious offense, as driving with the knowledge that your license is invalid or suspended is seen as a greater crime.

In order to lawfully operate a motor vehicle in the United States you need to have a valid driver’s license. As noted above, operating a vehicle without a valid driver’s license is illegal and leads to harsh penalties. In every state, the following factors may be involved in illegal operation of a motor vehicle:

  • Suspended or Revoked License: If the driver of the vehicle has a suspended or revoked license, then it is illegal to operate the vehicle. If you drive with a suspended or revoked license, this will likely be seen as an attempt to avoid the driving restriction, and it will likely be noted that you willingly drove despite knowing that your license was suspended. This tends to lead to harsh penalties;
  • Invalid License or Underage: If you have an invalid license or you are under the age of 16, it is illegal to operate a motor vehicle in the United States. Additionally, if a minor (under the age of 16) operates a motor vehicle, many states will not offer them the same protections that they would receive otherwise as a child.
    • Thus, the minor will be held to the same standard of care as an adult in a similar situation. Therefore, if there is an incident, the minor will likely be charged and tried as an adult, not as a child;
  • Expired License: Driving with an expired license is one of the most common ways a motorist may violate a driver’s license requirement. Driving with an expired license is illegal; however it is less severe than driving with a suspended or revoked license, such as a suspended license due to drunk driving or DUI; and
  • Driving Without Proof of License: 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, and vary depending on your jurisdiction.

What are the Penalties for Operating a Motor Vehicle Without a License?

Operating a motor vehicle without a license is a more severe traffic violation than a simple speeding ticket; speeding and moving violations are typically only infractions that carry fines as a penalty, but will generally not result in criminal penalties or jail time. Unlike speeding violations, driving without a license is a criminal offense. Additionally, the criminal penalties for driving without a license vary by jurisdiction.

Examples of criminal penalties you may encounter include:

  • California: First offenders caught driving without a license will be charged with a misdemeanor and may be subject to a $300 to $1,000 fine, as well as prison time between 5 days and 6 months. Subsequent offense will result in fines between $500 and $2,000, imprisonment between 10 days and 2 years, or both;
  • Florida: First offenders in Florida driving without a license will be charged with a 2nd degree misdemeanor, resulting in a fine of $500 or imprisonment for no more than 60 days. Subsequent offenses are considered first degree misdemeanors resulting in a fine of $1,000 or imprisonment of no more than 1 year;
  • New York: First offenders in New York caught driving without a license will be charged with a misdemeanor, resulting in fines between $200 and $500, imprisonment for no more than 30 days, or both. Subsequent offenses will result in a fine of no less than $500, imprisonment for no more than 180 days, or both;
  • Texas: First offenders caught driving without a license in Texas will be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, resulting in a fine of no more than $500. Subsequent offenses will result in a Class B misdemeanor charge with fines of not more than $2,000, imprisonment for no more than 180 days, or both; or
  • Illinois: First offenders in Illinois will be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, resulting in a fine of no more than $2,500, imprisonment for no more than 1 year, or both. Subsequent offenses are considered a Class 4 felony, resulting in imprisonment for 1 to 3 years, fines of up to $25,000, or both. Further, the violators vehicle may be impounded, and their driving privileges and right to apply for a license may be suspended or revoked.

What If I Don’t Get a New License After Moving to a New State?

It is important that as soon as you become a resident of a new state, you apply for a driver’s license from that state. The time within which you must change your driver’s license varies from state to state, but if you fail to do so within the time allotted by state law, your license from your old home state is invalid and you become an unlicensed driver, resulting in penalties.

What Happens If I Allow an Unlicensed Driver to Drive My Car?

States typically impose serious penalties if you allow an unlicensed driver to operate your car. For instance, in Florida, you can be put in jail and ordered to pay a fine. In California, your car may be impounded for up to 30 days or even forfeited, unless you have filed a stolen vehicle report. Further, in many states you will be civilly liable for any damages caused be the driver, because you will be found to be vicariously liable or sued for negligent entrustment.

Do I Need an Attorney If I Am Facing Charges for Driving Without a License?

As can be seen, the penalties for driving without a license may be very severe. Thus, if you are in a situation where you have been cited for driving without a valid driver’s license, it may be in your best interests to speak with a well-qualified and experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. A licensed and experienced criminal defense attorney will inform you of your rights, defenses, and help you navigate through the often complicated criminal legal system.