Driving Without a License in California

What does it mean to drive while your license is expired, revoked, suspended or cancelled?

What does it mean to “drive without a license” in California?

Driving without a license can refer to three scenarios. You’re stopped for an offense and:

  • You have a license but it’s not in your possession. In other words, you were licensed to drive but lacked proof, an infraction that may be dismissed once you can prove that you possessed a valid license at the time of the incident.   (Note: you may have to pay a fine.)
  • You never applied for a license (or your license expired). The law requiring a valid license in California is located at California Vehicle Code § 12500 and it states, “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.” Basically, violation of this law occurs if you drive and never obtain a driver’s license, you fail to renew your driver's license after it expires, or you establish residency in California but fail to obtain a California driver's license. Often, the charge for driving without a driver’s license is an infraction resulting in a maximum fine of $250. However, under some circumstances it can result in a misdemeanor charge with a maximum fine of $1,000, possible vehicle impound, and/or summary probation.
  • Your license was cancelled, revoked or suspended by the authorities. This offense in California (Cal. Vehicle Code § 14601) provides that on a first conviction, the violator may be subject to by imprisonment in a county jail for not less than five days or more than six months and by a fine of not less than three hundred dollars ($300) or more than one thousand dollars ($1,000).

Who doesn’t have to have a valid California driver’s license?

According to Cal. Vehicle Code § 12501, the following persons are not required to obtain a driver's license:

    (a) An officer or employee of the United States, while operating a motor vehicle owned or controlled by the United States on the business of the United States, except when the motor vehicle being operated is a commercial motor vehicle, as defined in Section 15210.

    (b) Any person while driving or operating implements of husbandry incidentally operated or moved over a highway, except as provided in Section 36300 or 36305.

    (c) Any person driving or operating an off-highway motor vehicle subject to identification, as defined in Section 38012, while driving or operating such motor vehicle as provided in Section 38025. Nothing in this subdivision authorizes operation of a motor vehicle by a person without a valid driver's license upon any offstreet parking facility, as defined in subdivision (c) of Section 12500.

How do you fight the charge?

Fighting a “driving without a license charge” can be difficult.   Once the district attorney or prosecutor alleges that you drove without a valid license, the burden of proof is on you to prove that you did possess a valid driver’s license at the time of your offense. If you don’t evidence of a license, you lose! Depending on your circumstances, you may benefit from the advice or negotiating skills of an attorney.

Can an undocumented immigrant obtain a driver’s license in California?

California offers driving privileges to unauthorized immigrants. California law allows the DMV to issue a driver’s license to deferred action recipients who can provide evidence of their authorized presence in the United States, even if they are ineligible for a Social Security number. Further, the law requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue driver's licenses to individuals who are ineligible for a Social Security Number, if the required documentation is provided.


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