Penalties for Driving Without a License

The laws associated with driving without a license and the penalties imposed for violating those laws.

All states issue driver's licenses and impose penalties on motorists who get caught driving without a valid license. Generally, these penalties vary depending on whether the motorist just didn't have a license or was operating a vehicle while his or her license was suspended or revoked.

Basics of Driving Without a License

In all states, it's unlawful for a person to operate a vehicle on public streets or highways without a valid driver's license. Unlicensed driving where the driver never had a license or just let their license expire is typically a traffic violation, a relatively minor offense.

But if the person was driving after having his or her license suspended or revoked, the offense is generally more serious. Depending on the situation, driving while suspended or revoked can be a misdemeanor or even a felony.

Some states recognize defenses to traffic violations related to unlicensed driving. Common defenses are:

  • necessity, and

  • lack of notice.

In states that recognize the necessity defense, it's a defense to driving without a license and driving while suspended or revoked if there was an injury or immediate threat of injury to a person and the circumstances made it necessary for the defendant to drive. In state's that recognize the no notice defense, it's a defense if the defendant had not received notice of the expiration, suspension, or revocation. The requirements of notice vary by state, but generally, notice must be provided by the court, Department of Motor Vehicles, or the police officer on the citation.


Unlicensed driving (not involving a suspension or revocation) typically carries only a fine. For driving while suspended or revoked, on the other hand, the penalties often include fines and the possibility of jail time. Some states also impose an additional driver's license suspension, vehicle impoundment, vehicle forfeiture, and/or community service for driving on a suspended or revoked license.

In many states, subsequent convictions will result in increased or additional penalties. For example, in some states, a third conviction for driving while suspended or revoked is a felony offense. Other states increase the fine amount, driver's license suspension time, jail time, and/or vehicle impoundment time upon subsequent convictions. For increased penalties to apply, the subsequent conviction generally must be within a certain period time (five years, for instance) of the prior convictions.

Driving While Suspended or Revoked and DUI

Driving while suspended or revoked and DUI are separate offenses. However, a defendant can commit both offenses at the same time. If a person is convicted of a DUI offense and had a suspended driver's license at the time of arrest, the driver will generally be facing the penalties for both offenses.

Even if the defendant didn't drive with a suspended or revoked license and commit a DUI at the same time, the penalties for driving on a suspended license are often increased if the license suspension resulted from a prior DUI conviction. For example, in Oregon, driving while suspended or revoked is normally a traffic violation. But if the person's license is suspended because of a DUI conviction, driving on a suspended or revoked is a misdemeanor.

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