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Driving Without A License Law & Defense

Vehicle Code 12500(a)

Information on the crime of driving without a license, is found at California vehicle code section 12500(a). This article is a summary of the law, the punishments, and the defenses related to VC 12500(a) charges.

To begin with, driving without a license means the defendant is driving without a valid driver's license issued by California or another state. It does not mean that the defendant was driving without his or her license in his or her possession. The charge of driving without possession of a driver's license is found at VC 12951(a), an infraction.

VC 12500 & Relevant Law (Abbr.)

A person may not drive a motor vehicle upon a highway, unless the person has a valid California driver’s license except those persons who are expressly exempted under the law (VC 12500(a)).

Person that are exempt from the requirements of VC 12500(a) include: persons operating off road vehicles, federal law enforcement agents driving in relation to their employment, and incidental highway driving in connection with breeding farm animals (VC 12501).

Out of state residents may lawfully drive in California if they are over the age of eighteen and possess a valid driver's license from their state of residence. The out-of-state license must be in the immediate possession of the out-of-state driver while that driver is driving in California (VC 12502(a)(1)).

A person may not drive a motor vehicle that is not of a type for which the person is licensed (VC 12500(d)).

Motorcycles are considered motor vehicles and a person may not drive a motorcycle in California unless the person has a valid motorcycle license, except those persons who are expressly exempted under the law (VC 12500(b)).

In order for the defendant to be found guilty of the crime of driving a vehicle without a license the district attorney will need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant:

  • Drove a motor vehicle on a public highway or street
  • Drove without a California driver's license, and
  • Was not exempted from the license requirement

A highway or street is defined as a way or place of whatever nature, publicly maintained and open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel. Highway includes street (VC 360).

VC 12500(a) Punishments

VC 12500(a), driving without a license, is classified as a misdemeanor.

Jail Sentence: If found guilty of driving without a license the defendant could face up to 180 days in the county jail.

Probation Sentence: A probation sentence is a period of supervision instead of jail. Probation sentences for driving without a license are considered informal, which means the defendant is not monitored by a probation officer. Probation sentences carry terms of probation that must be followed in order to avoid a violation of probation charge. Probation terms can include work release or house arrest terms. Probation sentences are common for VC 12500(a) convictions but they are not guaranteed. Whether or not a probation sentence is available for VC 12500(a) convictions depends largely on the defendants criminal history and the circumstances of the case.

Immigration Consequences: Driving without a license is not a crime involving moral turpitude (CIMT). Crimes involving moral turpitude are defined as crimes that are morally wrong and carry special punishments for non U.S. citizens. Even though driving without a license is not considered a crime involving moral turpitude non U.S. citizens should be aware that multiple misdemeanor convictions can lead to deportation or denial of reentry into the United States. Also, immigration law is changing rapidly and if you are charged with any crime, including the crime of driving without a license, you should contact a criminal defense attorney or an immigration attorney, or both, without delay. For more information see immigration consequences for criminal convictions.

Professional Licensing Consequences: A professional with a California state license, such as a doctor, dentist, lawyer, nurse, teacher, therapist, etc., may be disciplined by his or her licensing agency (Board, Bar, Commission, etc.) upon any conviction for a misdemeanor crime, including the crime of driving without a license. If you are charged with VC 12500(a), and you possess a state-issued professional license, contact a criminal defense attorney, or a licensing administrative attorney without delay. For more information see professional licensing consequences for criminal convictions.

Other Punishments: In addition to possible jail time, if found guilty of driving without a license, the defendant could suffer any or all of the following punishments: Court fines and fees, loss of the ability to obtain a driver's license in the future, loss of immigration status, loss of a professional license, enhanced punishment for subsequent violations, vehicle impound for up to thirty days, and more.

VC 12500(b), driving without the proper license, is classified as an infraction. Infractions do not carry jail sentences.

VC 12951(b) failure to present license to a peace officer, is classified as a misdemeanor. VC 12951(b) carries the same punishments as VC 12500(a) driving without a license.

VC 12500(a) Defenses

After the district attorney shows evidence that the defendant was driving without a license, usually through DMV records and officer testimony, the defendant must provide evidence to the contrary, or a legal justification, to avoid a conviction.

Common defenses or legal justifications for driving without a license include: necessity, illegal stop, statute of limitations, duress, and more.

Plea Bargaining: In many cases of VC 12500(a) the district attorney, or the court, will agree to reduce the criminal charges, or the sentence associated with the criminal charges, if the defendant is willing and able to obtain a valid driver's license. Whether or not a negotiated plea bargain is available in any case depends largely on the defendant's criminal history (including driving history), and the egregiousness of the defendant's conduct associated with the current charge. 

For more information on the common defenses to VC 12500(a) crimes, please visit defenses.

If you are charged with the misdemeanor offense of driving without a license, or VC 12500(a), contact our office today for a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney. Our misdemeanor traffic attorneys are available seven days a week to review your case and discuss your defense options. Call today!

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