Driving Without a License
Driving without a license is illegal in California under California Vehicle Code Section 12500. It applies to those who are driving without being licensed or while their license is suspended, and it also applies to people who drive without having their license physically on them. The charges are very different between the two crimes, though.
The law provides for people who are visiting from out of state and those who have recently moved to California by offering a grace period where a driver can drive using a valid license from another state. If the driver has permanently moved to California, they must apply for a California driver’s license as soon as possible.
Driving Without a License: Elements of the Crime
The elements of the crime are what the prosecutor must prove occurred in order to achieve a conviction. In this case, the prosecutor must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convince the court that the defendant was driving without a license:
- The defendant drove a motor vehicle on a “highway”
- The defendant did not have a valid California license when they drove
- None of the exceptions provided in 12500 VC apply to the defendant and the circumstances
We will discuss the exceptions to driving without a license later in this article. For the purpose of this law, a highway is defined as any publicly maintained area that is designated for driving. It includes roads and streets as well as actual highways.
Someone can also be charged for failing to present their driver’s license (12951 VC) and Driving on a suspended or revoked license (14601 VC). You may be charged with one of those if the prosecutor is unable to prove all of the elements for a driving without a license charge.
You can be charged with driving without a license if you do not notice that your driver’s license has expired and continue to drive while it is expired. You may also be charged with driving without a license if you recently moved to California and have not gotten a license within the grace period. The California Vehicle Code provides a 20 day grace period for someone who has moved to obtain a California driver’s license. Within that time, they can drive with a valid license from their former state.
Driving Without a License Penalties
The penalties for driving without a license depends on whether it is charged as an infraction or a misdemeanor. The law allows the judge discretion when charging someone for driving without a license to take into account the circumstances of the crime. This is known in the legal community as a “wobbler.”
The maximum penalty for an infraction is a fine of $250. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor is a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 6 months in jail. Again, the judge is allowed a certain amount of discretion when deciding on the criminal penalties; they are given minimum and maximum guidelines.
Prosecutors are lenient in California, and if the defendant obtains a valid driver’s license before their trial date, they will agree to charge the defendant with an infraction only. Your criminal defense lawyer will usually ask you to try to obtain a driver’s license as the first step of your case.
Driving Without a License: Exceptions
There are some exceptions to the driving without a license law. The first is if the driver is visiting from California and their primary residence is not in California. This applies to drivers who live in both California and another state. If they are a resident of another state in the eyes of the law, then they are not required to have a valid California driver’s license.
The second is if the driver only just moved to California. The law allows a new California resident 20 days from their moving date to obtain a valid California driver’s license. In the interim, they can use their driver’s license from another state, provided it is valid.
The third is if the driver did not have their license on them when they were stopped. They cannot be charged with driving without a license but they will be charged with an infraction offense of failing to present a driver’s license (12951 VC).
Driving Without a License: Legal Defenses
The goal of a good legal defense to driving without a license is to weaken the prosecutor’s case in regards to one of the elements of the offense. The prosecutor must prove those three things beyond a reasonable doubt in order to secure a conviction.
A criminal defense attorney can help you to build a strong case against a driving without a license charge. They will advise you on the best course of action to get the charges reduced or dropped completely.