Driving Without a License in CaliforniaMost California drivers never contemplate, when they start the car to drive to work in the morning, that this could be the day they are stopped by police and asked to show their license.

Reaching for your purse or wallet to look for your driver’s license and not finding it while a police officer is at the window of your car may cause panic to set in.

There is no such thing as a right to drive a motor vehicle in the state of California. In order to do so, you are required to have in your possession, a license to operate a motor vehicle in order to legally do so. Driving without a valid license in California can lead to fines, fees, and even potential jail time in some cases.

Learning more about these offenses can help reduce the stress next time you are stopped by an officer and asked to show your license.

What is California Vehicle Code 12500 VC?

California Vehicle Code 12500 states the following:

“A person may not drive a motor vehicle upon a highway, unless the person then holds a valid driver’s license issued under this code, except those persons who are expressly exempted under this code.”

Although California does not have a general “stop and identify” law, drivers do have to show their license when requested by law enforcement.

It is a crime to drive without a valid license unless one or more of the following applies:

  • You are a visitor over the age of 18 and have a valid license from your home state or country, valid for the type of vehicle you’re driving (car, truck, motorcycle, scooter, etc.)
  • You’re a government employee driving a government-owned non-commercial vehicle while on federal business
  • You’re driving a tractor or other farm equipment across private land
  • You’re crossing a public road in an off-road vehicle
  • You’re a nonresident transporting hazardous materials from another state or Canada
  • You’re a nonresident with a valid diplomatic driver’s license for the type of vehicle you’re driving

Most commonly, driving without a license violation applies to individuals who have failed to renew a driver’s license, never obtained one, or became a resident of California and failed to get a new driver’s license within 10 days of their California residency (as required by law).

Note that you do not need a license issued by the State of California unless you are a resident here. If you have a valid license issued by the state or country in which you reside, then that license is acceptable.

However, if you have a valid license but are not carrying it on your person and cannot present it when asked to do so by a law enforcement officer, you are also committing a violation under California Vehicle Code Section 12951.

In this case, you will be charged with an infraction. You will then need to prove that you have a valid driver’s license to avoid further penalties.

What are the penalties for driving without a license?

Under CVC 12500, driving without a license is a “wobbler” offense. This means that you can be charged with either a misdemeanor or an infraction. As a misdemeanor, this offense carries a penalty of up to six months in jail though. However, with the support of an experienced criminal defense lawyer like Bryan R. Kazarian, you will likely escape jail time and possibly even the fines involved. The fines for this offense can be as much as $1,000.

If you have prior convictions for driving violations, punishments may be more severe. Also, having prior misdemeanor convictions under CVC 12500 or other driving offenses may lead to your vehicle being impounded for up to 30 days.

If this offense is charged as an infraction, a fine of up to $250 may apply.

Driving without a license Penalties
  • A fine of up to $250
  • Up to 6 months in county jail
  • A fine of up to $1,000
Misdemeanor with a prior
  • Up to 6 months in county jail
  • A fine of up to $1,000
  • Vehicle impounded for up to 30 days.

Driving without a license vs. driving on a suspended license (Vehicle Code 14601 VC)

Driving on a suspended license is often confused with driving without a license.

However, pursuant to Vehicle Code 14601, driving on a suspended license is a separate offense. Driving on a suspended license is considered a more serious violation because you previously violated the law resulting in a suspension of your license.

According to VC 14601:

“No person shall drive a motor vehicle at any time when that person’s driving privilege is suspended or revoked…”

Penalties for driving on a suspended or revoked license are far greater than for driving without a license. In some instances, a conviction under this section could result in the requirement of jail time as punishment.

For a first conviction of driving on a suspended license, depending upon the reason your license was suspended, you can face jail time of between five days and six months and a fine of between $300 and $1,000.

Like a DUI, convictions for sections of CVC 14601 are “priorable” offenses, which means that you will face more severe punishment for each subsequent incident in which you are convicted for driving on a suspended license. If the offense occurred within five years of a prior offense that resulted in a conviction, you will face jail time of between 10 days and one year and a fine of between $500 and $2,000.

Finally, a conviction for driving on a suspended license carries a two-point penalty against your driving record with the DMV (even as an infraction). Driving without a license does not carry any point penalties with the DMV.

Driving on a suspended or revoked license Penalties
First conviction
  • 5 days to 6 months in county jail
  • A fine of between $300 and $1,000
  • Two-point penalty against your driving record
Conviction with a prior offense within 5 years
  • 10 days to 12 months in county jail
  • A fine of between $500 and $2,000
  • Two-point penalty against your driving record

Defending a driving without a license charge

Never simply accept a violation of driving without a license until you have spoken to a criminal defense lawyer.

Several valid defenses may apply to these violations. You will have a strong case if any of the following applies:

  • You are a visitor to the state, over the age of 18, with a valid driver’s license from your state or country of residence

  • You were legally exempt from having a driver’s license
  • You were not driving the vehicle
  • You have a valid license that was not in your immediate possession when stopped

Been charged with driving without a license in Orange County?

If you or someone you care about has been charged with driving without or on a suspended license in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, or San Diego counties of Southern California, we can help.

We will build a defense strategy that aims to get the charges dismissed or reduced to a lesser offense.

We have offices in Santa Ana, Westminster, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino, and serve the surrounding areas including Newport Beach and Fullerton. Our lawyers at The Law Offices of Bryan R. Kazarian are available 24/7 to help! Book an online consultation to get started today.