CA Vehicle Code 12500: Driving Without a License

Driving without a license may be charged as a criminal offense in California and if you are convicted, the consequences can be serious.

Fines, fees, and even potential jail time may result. However, there are several valid defenses and, at times, people may be wrongly charged with this offense. Sometimes, people are charged with driving without a license by making an honest mistake, like driving with an out-of-state license for longer than 10 days.

An experienced criminal defense attorney can help you escape the most serious consequences and prevent a criminal record.

The Law Offices of Bryan R. Kazarian have experience with these types of cases and may ensure that a mistake on the road does not jeopardize your rights and freedoms.

What is CA Vehicle Code Section 12500?

The main provision of CA Vehicle Code Section 12500 (“VC 12500”) is as follows:

“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.”

This law applies to people who drive motorcycles, motorized bicycles, and motorized scooters, and also to those who drive on an off-street parking facility. Additionally,  VC 12500 also requires that a driver only drives the class of vehicle that they are licensed for.

Every California driver (and those who permanently move to California from another state) must have a valid California driver’s license or face criminal prosecution.

The offense of driving without a license should not be confused with driving on a suspended/revoked license or failing to present a driver’s license.

When can you be charged with VC 12500? 

VC 12500 is typically charged when someone is pulled over by the police for a separate offense and is found to be driving without a valid driver’s license.

This could be due to:

  • The failure to renew a driver’s license.
  • The driver never obtained a valid driver’s license.

Failure to get a license within 10 days of becoming a California resident (using an out-of-state license).

CA Vehicle Code 12500: Driving Without a License


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Who is required to have a driver’s license in California? 

Almost every driver on California’s roads is required to hold a valid California driver’s license.

Drivers who are NOT required to have a license are:

  • Government officers or employees driving a vehicle (other than a commercial vehicle) owned or controlled by the U.S. government while on federal business.
  • Someone driving an implement of husbandry (such as a tractor) other than on a public road.
  • Someone driving an off-road vehicle across a public road.
  • Visitors aged 18 and over who hold a valid license in their home state or country.
  • Non-residents aged 21 or older, if transporting hazardous material and holding a valid license from another state or Canada.
  • Non-residents with a valid diplomatic license for the type of vehicle(s) they are driving.

A highway refers to any area publicly maintained and open to the public for vehicular travel. This includes streets and roads.

What if I drive on an out-of-state driver’s license?

California’s driving laws are somewhat flexible when dealing with out-of-state driver’s licenses. If you have a valid out-of-state driver’s license, you can legally drive in California.   However, once you become a resident of California, you need to obtain a California driver’s license within 10 days to drive legally.

You become a resident when you:

  • File for a homeowner property tax exemption,
  • Vote in a California election,
  • Pay resident tuition at a school located in California, or
  • Receive benefits only provided to state residents.

Driving without a license vs driving on a suspended license 

Everyone, of legal age, begins with the privilege to drive a motor vehicle.  A violation of VC 12500 occurs when a person drives without a valid driver’s license.  However, driving on a suspended/revoked license occurs when a person has had their driving privileges suspended or revoked, whether or not they had ever been issued a valid California driver’s license.  Traditionally, driving on a suspended/revoked license holds more serious consequences than driving without a valid license because they have already violated some law that resulted in the license suspension/revocation.

How does a prosecutor prove that someone drove without a license?

Three elements are necessary for the prosecution to prove that a person was driving without a license:

  1. The person was driving a motor vehicle on any public road, street, or highway in California,
  2. At the time, the driver did not have a valid driver’s license, and
  3. The driver was not excused from the requirement to have a valid California driver’s license.

If the prosecution cannot prove all three elements beyond a reasonable doubt, the driver would be entitled to a verdict of not guilty.

Penalties for driving without a license in California (VC 12500)

As you know, driving without a license is generally not as serious as driving on a suspended/revoked license.  However, in California, one could still end up with a criminal conviction and possible jail time.

VC 12500 is a “wobbler” offense in California, meaning that it can be treated either as a misdemeanor or a non-criminal infraction. If your attorney is not successful in obtaining a reduced or dismissed charge, the next best outcome is often accomplished by liaising with the prosecution to downgrade the misdemeanor offense to an infraction.  This often occurs when one obtains a valid California driver’s license while charges are pending.  If it is your first offense, it may be treated as a non-criminal infraction – but subsequent violations are more serious.

Driving without a license Penalties
Infraction offense A fine of up to $250
Misdemeanor offense Up to 6 months in county jail
A fine of up to $1,000

Defenses for driving without a license in California (VC 12500)

The most common legal defenses for driving without a license are as follows:

  • The driver was a visitor to California and holds a valid driver’s license from another state or country of residence,
  • The driver was legally exempt from the requirement to have a license,
  • The defendant was not driving the vehicle at the time, or
  • The defendant had a valid license but did not have it on their person when stopped by the police

The latter defense might work for driving without a license but will lead to another infraction under California Vehicle Code Section 12951.

Have you been charged with driving without a license in Orange County? 

A charge of driving without a license may result from an honest mistake. However, it is a mistake that can impact your future employment, housing, and immigration status if you end up with a criminal record.

The Law Offices of Bryan R. Kazarian can provide experienced legal representation to help navigate the legal processes and will work toward obtaining a reduction or dismissal of the charges against you. Our goal is to prevent one mistake from negatively affecting your life.

If you or someone you care about has been charged with driving without a license in the Southern California counties of Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego, please contact our office for a case evaluation.

We have offices in Santa Ana, Westminster, Newport Beach and Fullerton to serve clients with matters heard at the Central, West, Harbor, and North Justice Centers, respectively, for all of Orange County.  The lawyers at The Law Offices of Bryan R. Kazarian are here to help!  Book an online consultation to get started today.
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