A license is an essential document in the state of California. It helps you show law enforcement officers that you are a thoroughly trained and certified driver, with a permit to operate the type of vehicle you are driving. However, many times, fully qualified drivers have been arrested for driving without a license. While this may not seem like a bad thing since they are qualified drivers, it is illegal in California and could leave you serving time in jail and paying hefty penalties. Get in touch with the Long Beach Criminal Attorney for legal help on driving crimes such as driving without a license.
California Law on Driving Without a License
The law against driving without a license is provided under Section 12500(a) of the California Vehicle Code. According to this law, any driver using California public highways or the state’s public parking facilities must have a valid California driver’s license. If the driver is coming from a different state, they must produce an authentic permit from their state or country. Note that the license must have been issued for the exact type of vehicle you are driving at the time.
Many people have been caught driving without driver's licenses for various reasons. In California, for instance, the process of applying for a driving permit or renewing a license is long and tedious. A person with a limited amount of time may not be able to wait in line for hours to obtain a license for fear of getting inconvenienced. While this seems like a reasonable explanation of why you are driving without a valid license, the act is still a severe offense and could see you being criminally prosecuted.
There are exceptions to this law. The following people are not required to have a California driver’s license to operate a vehicle in the state:
- Government officials and employees who drive a vehicle that is controlled or owned by the US government. They do not need to have a driver’s license while carrying out federal business. Drivers operating a profit-making vehicle will, however, not be exempted from this, even if the commercial vehicle is controlled or owned by the US government
- A person operating an appliance of husbandry like a tractor and are not on an open road
- A driver that is running a vehicle that is operated off-highway but is passing across an open street
- People visiting the state of California and are over 18 years of age. They must be holders of driver licenses from their state of residence or country, though
- Non-California residents who are 21 years of age or older and are transporting hazardous materials. They too should be holders of valid licenses from their state
- Non-California diplomats holding a valid diplomat’s license for the kind of vehicle they are using
What are the Elements of This Crime?
Just like in every other crime in the state of California, there are factors that a prosecutor must prove to find a defendant guilty of an offense. In a case where a person was caught driving without a license, the prosecutor must prove the following:
- That the accused was indeed driving on a highway
- That while they were driving, they did not have a valid driver’s license
- That the accused was not one among those exempted from the requirements of California vehicle Code 12500(a)
Highway, as used in this case, will refer to an area that is publicly maintained and accessible by the members of the public for use by vehicles. A highway will also include streets. Motor vehicles will consist of motorcycles, passenger vehicles, buses, motor scooters, commercial vehicles, trailers, and truck tractors.
Note that drivers from other states are allowed to drive in the state of California with an out-of-state license, but under the following conditions:
- That they are of legal age, which is at least 18 years
- That they have a valid driver’s license from their state of residence
- That the license they hold is for driving the exact kind of vehicle they are operating in California
The Burden Of Proof In a Case of Driving Without a License
When it comes to cases involving driving without a license in California, the burden of proof is not usually the same as most offenses in the state. In most cases, the prosecutor is required to prove the case beyond any reasonable doubt. However, in a situation like this, the prosecutor will not be required to prove beyond doubt that the accused was driving without a valid license.
Instead, the prosecutor will only claim that the accused was driving without a valid license at the moment of the arrest. The burden will then shift to the accused to demonstrate that they had a legal permit at that time. The reasoning behind this is, it will be easier for the defendant to verify that they had a legal driving license at the moment of arrest than it would be for a prosecutor to verify that the accused did not have a license at all.
Common Instances That Are Charged Under Section 12500(a) of California Vehicle Code
Most cases involving driving without a license in California arise in the following situations:
- When a defendant has never applied for a driving license
- When the accused has failed to renew their license on time after its expiration
- When the defendant fails to apply for a California driver’s license even after establishing residency in the state
People who have been unable to bring their license with them, yet they have been issued with one, will only be penalized under Section 12500 of California Vehicle Code and not charged under Section 12500(a). If a person has already been issued with a driver’s license but does not have one at the time of arrest, they will be charged under Section 12951 of the state's Vehicle Code, which makes it a criminal offense to fail to display your license.
Section 12951 is, in most cases, charged as a violation and is punishable by a maximum of $250 in fines. However, the charges will be dismissed if the accused appears in court with their license. Note that the permit must have been valid when you were arrested for the charges to be dropped.
Penalties for Driving Without a License in California
As mentioned above, driving without a license in California as provided under Section 12500(a) is a severe offense and can be severely punished. The crime can be punished as either:
- An infraction
- A misdemeanor
If you get an infraction conviction, you will only be charged a fine of not more than $250. However, if convicted as a misdemeanor, the defendant could get a summary or misdemeanor probation for a maximum of three years. In addition to or in place of that, you will be fined a maximum of $1000 and could also face jail time for a maximum of six months.
If the defendant has a prior conviction or a conviction for related offenses, the penalties could include impounding their vehicle for about 30 days.
What determines whether you will face an infraction or misdemeanor conviction?
The judge will have absolute discretion in deciding how he/she will sentence you for driving without a license. His/her decision will be determined by a few factors, such as
- Your driving history. If you are a first offender, your case may be convicted as an infraction.
- If you have the same or a similar conviction in your record. In that case, your current case will be convicted as a misdemeanor
Possible Defenses Against Charges of Driving Without a License
Working with an experienced attorney can significantly help when you are facing such serious charges as driving without a license. An experienced attorney will be by your side throughout, offering advice and guidance to ensure that the process is as smooth as possible. He/she will also file the necessary documents on time to avoid delays that could result in additional penalties or suspension in your case.
The most important thing is the legal help that you can get from your criminal defense attorney in defending yourself against the charges you are facing. Your attorney can use several defense strategies to influence the prosecutor to reduce the charges and charge you with an infraction or to drop them altogether. Here are some of these defenses:
Your attorney can prove that you had a functional license when you faced an arrest
This will be the best defense that your attorney can use in such a case, and if he/she succeeds in proving that you had a legal license when you were arrested, then the court could drop the charges. If you have a license that was obtained in the state of California, the defense will be straightforward, and in no time, you could be free of the charges.
However, if the permit was obtained in a different country or state, you may have to prove a few things. First, you need to demonstrate that you were not a resident of California and could, therefore, not have applied for the state's license. The second one will be to prove that you indeed have a valid permit from your state of resident or country.
To help in such a case, your attorney will obtain documents from the Department of Motor Vehicles of that other state or country and also prove that you are a registered voter or that you pay taxes in that other country or state.
He/she could persuade the court to postpone the case for enough time until you get a state’s valid license
This defense strategy will work very well for a first time offender. The prosecutor will not have any problem postponing the case to allow you to obtain a valid license if you are not a repeat offender. The defense will help a person facing misdemeanor charges for driving without a license.
If, therefore, you know that you are eligible to apply for a license from the state’s DMV but for some reason you haven’t, postponing the case will be a great idea. In the end, the court might dismiss your charges since you will already have a valid license or you could face an infraction.
Note that if there was a warrant for your arrest at the moment of your arrest for driving without a license, you could have a hard time negotiating for charges reduction. That is why it is advisable to work closely with an experienced attorney. From his/her experience, your attorney may know how to convince the prosecutor to get your charges dropped despite a warrant of arrest. Again, if your attorney has worked with the prosecutor before, their good relationship could work for your advantage.
If you are facing misdemeanor charges for VC 12500 violation, your attorney could try to bargain for charges reduction to an infraction
If you are not able to get your charges dropped, an infringement will be a better conviction because you will only be fined an amount not exceeding $250.
What Happens to a Driver Whose Country Does Not Issue Licenses?
If you have come to California, and you are without a driver's license because your country does not issue one, state laws will only allow you to drive under the following conditions:
- That you are of legal age, of at least 18 years
- That you are only driving a foreign vehicle that you own, and just for a maximum of 30 days
- That after the 30 days, you will obtain a California’s license
There is no way to show a law enforcement officer that you are a certified driver if you do not have a valid driver’s license. The state of California takes having a license on your person very seriously. Hence, you might face serious charges if you are found guilty of driving without a valid license. If you or your loved one are facing these charges, get in touch with the Long Beach Criminal Attorney at 562-308-7807 to prepare the best defense.