California Law on Driving without a License
Vehicle Code 12500 (a) vc


In order to understand better California's driving laws...specifically with respect to Vehicle Code 12500 a vc "driving without a license"...our criminal defense attorneys will address the following topics:

1. How Does the Prosecutor Prove that I Drove without a License?
2. Related Offense:  Driving on a Suspended or Revoked License
3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing under California Vehicle Code 12500 VC
4. How Do I Fight a Driving without a License Charge?
5. Illegal Immigrants and California Driver's Licenses

California Vehicle Code 12500 a vc prohibits people from driving in California without a valid driver's license.1

To be valid, a drivers license doesn't necessarily have to be issued by the California Department of Vehicles2. It just must be (1) a valid driver's license from the state in which you live, and (2) for the type of vehicle (car, motorcycle, commercial truck, etc.) that you are driving.3

If the police gave you a citation for driving without a license, then you (or your attorney, if you hire one) must go to court on the scheduled court date. If neither you nor your lawyer show up, the judge will issue a California bench warrant for your arrest.

Although driving without a license is a relatively minor offense, it's still a misdemeanor. A conviction, if you suffer one, will appear on your criminal record.  The best way to avoid this outcome is to consult with a California criminal defense lawyer who can help get this charge reduced to an infraction or dismissed altogether.

The police can charge you with Vehicle Code 12500 vc if you get caught driving in a situation where:

  • you have never obtained a driver's license,
  • you failed to renew your driver's license after it expired,
  • you established residency in California but failed to obtain a California driver's license, or
  • you are ineligible for a drivers license in this state (if, for example, you are an illegal immigrant...the ramifications of which are discussed below).

If after reading this article, you have additional questions, we invite you to contact us.  You may also find helpful information in our related articles on Vehicle Code 14601 Driving on a Suspended or Revoked License; Vehicle Code 12591 California's Law Against Failing to Display a Driver's License; and California Bench Warrants and Arrest Warrants.

1. How Does the Prosecutor Prove that I Drove without a License?

In order for the prosecutor to prove that you are guilty of driving without a valid license under California Vehicle Code 12500 VC, he/she must establish two facts (otherwise known as "elements of the crime")4:

  1. that you drove on a street or highway, and
  2. that, at the time you drove, you did not hold a validly issued driver's license.

Unlike most crimes that require the prosecution to maintain the burden of proving your guilt, "driving without a license" is a bit different.  Courts have ruled that whether or not you are licensed is a matter within your own knowledge.

As a result...and despite the fact that we just said the prosecution must "prove" the above two elements...the prosecution doesn't really have to prove that you weren't licensed. The prosecution simply has to allege that you weren't licensed at the time you drove. This shifts the burden to you to prove that you were.5

The logic is based on what courts refer to as the rule of convenience.  The "rule of convenience" states that it is much easier for a defendant to prove that he is, in fact, licensed than it is for the state to prove that he isn't.6 Although this rule is outdated...given our current state of technology where driver's license records are readily accessible to prosecuting is still the state of the law.

It should be noted that California Vehicle Code 12500 a vc penalizes driving without a validly issued license...not simply driving without a license in your possession.

If you do have a valid drivers license but simply didn't have it in your possession when you got stopped, this constitutes an infraction under California Vehicle Code 12951, California's law against failing to display a driver's license. The infraction will be dismissed if and when you provide proof that you were validly licensed at the time of your offense.7

2. Related Offense:  Driving on a Suspended or Revoked License

Driving without a license under Vehicle Code section 12500 is a crime in and of itself.  It is not the same offense as driving on a suspended or revoked license, prohibited under California Vehicle Code 14601 and its related sections.8

Driving on a revoked or suspended license is a more serious offense.  First off, it is more difficult for the prosecution to prove...they must prove that you knew your license was suspended or revoked.9 And second, it carries more severe penalties than a Vehicle Code 12500 vc conviction, including

  • a higher maximum jail sentence, and
  • increased penalties with each subsequent conviction.10

For more information about driving on a suspended or revoked license, we invite you to read our article on Vehicle Code 14601 driving on a suspended or revoked license.

3. Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing under California Vehicle Code 12500 VC

Driving without a valid driver's license in California is a "wobbler".  This means that, depending on the circumstances, prosecutors can charge this offense as either a misdemeanor or as a non-criminal infraction.

California Vehicle Code 12500(a)...which prohibits driving a car without a valid driver's the only possible 12500 vc misdemeanor offense.11 The other subsections of Vehicle Code 12500 are infractions...such as driving a motorcycle without a license.12

The main factor that the prosecution will consider when deciding whether to charge you with a misdemeanor or an infraction is your driving history.  If this is your first offense, they may charge you only with the infraction.  And even if the prosecutor initially charges you with a misdemeanor, he/she may be willing to reduce or even dismiss the charges if you subsequently obtain a valid driver's license.

As Los Angeles criminal defense attorney John Murray explains13, "If I have a client who I know is eligible to obtain a license, I will postpone the proceedings long enough so that he has time to obtain one.  This tactic usually results in a dismissed charge or, at the very least, in an infraction."

That said, if you have the misfortune of being caught driving without a license while you have a California arrest warrant, a charge reduction may not be so simple.  If you know or think you might have a warrant out for your arrest, it is advisable that you contact an attorney.

Taking a pro-active approach to remedy this situation is always a better idea than taking the "wait and see" approach...especially if you're picked up for a separate violation.

Misdemeanor 12500 VC -- Driving without a valid driver's license in California (a judge may impose any or all of the following)14:

  • Informal (otherwise known as "summary") probation for up to three years,
  • Up to six months in the county jail,
  • A maximum $1,000 fine,
  • A possible 30-day impound of your car

Infraction Vehicle Code 12500 VC15:

  • maximum $250 fine
4. How Do I Fight a Driving without a License Charge?

Because the burden is on you to prove that you were, in fact, licensed, that is the best way to defeat this charge.

If that isn't possible, you should ask your attorney to see how long he/she can postpone your case so that you can obtain a license.  Unless you are a repeat offender, most prosecuting agencies will allow you this courtesy.

5. Illegal Immigrants and California Driver's Licenses

Undocumented immigrants are forbidden from driving in California.  Because you need a United States social security number or other federal tax payer identification number before the California DMV will issue you a driver's license, "aliens" are prevented from becoming licensed drivers.16

Because most illegal immigrants come to California to work, they are forced to violate section 12500 of the Vehicle Code on a routine basis when they drive without a license.  Taking advantage of public transportation is the best way to avoid this vicious cycle.

Call us for help

If you or loved one is charged with Vehicle Code 12500 (a) vc driving without a license and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

Arrested in Nevada?

Whereas driving with no license in California may be just an infraction, the Nevada crime of driving without a license is always charged as a misdemeanor and potentially carries jail time. But our Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys at 702-DEFENSE (702-333-3673) are here to help, and they can usually take care of this matter without you needing to come into the state.  Learn more about the law at our information page:  Nevada crime of driving without a license.

Additional Resource:

California Department of Motor Vehicles-
Includes publications about driving offenses and penalties and offers access to the California Vehicle Code.

Legal References:

1California Penal Code 12500 -- License requirements... ("(a) 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.")

2California Vehicle Code 15020 VC - The Driver's License Compact (DLC).   ("(b) It is the policy of the party states to: (2) Make the reciprocal recognition of licenses to drive and eligibility therefore more just and equitable by considering the overall compliance with motor vehicle laws, ordinances and administrative rules and regulations as a condition precedent to the continuance or issuance of any license by reason of which the licensee is authorized or permitted to operate a motor vehicle in any of the party states.")

3See Vehicle Code 12500 VC.  ("(b) A person may not drive a motorcycle, motor-driven cycle, or motorized bicycle upon a highway, unless the person then holds a valid driver's license or endorsement issued under this code for that class, except those persons who are expressly exempted under this code, or those persons specifically authorized to operate motorized bicycles or motorized scooters with a valid driver's license of any class, as specified in subdivision (h) of Section 12804.9. (c) A person may not drive a motor vehicle in or upon any offstreet parking facility, unless the person then holds a valid driver's license of the appropriate class or certification to operate the vehicle. As used in this subdivision, "offstreet parking facility" means any offstreet facility held open for use by the public for parking vehicles and includes any publicly owned facilities for offstreet parking, and privately owned facilities for offstreet parking where no fee is charged for the privilege to park and which are held open for the common public use of retail customers. (d) A person may not drive a motor vehicle or combination of vehicles that is not of a type for which the person is licensed.")

4California Jury Instructions -- Criminal.  CALJIC 16.630 Driving without being Licensed [per California's driving laws].  ("In order to prove this crime, each of the following elements must be proved: [1] A person drove a motor vehicle upon a highway; and [2] At the time the driver of the vehicle did not hold a [valid] driver's license issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles.")

5California Jury Instructions -- Criminal.  CALJIC 16.631 Licensed Driver -- Burden of Proof.  ("It is not necessary for the People to introduce evidence that the defendant did not have a valid license to operate a motor vehicle [in a California Vehicle Code 12500 VC driving without a license prosecution]. Whether the defendant was or was not properly licensed is a matter peculiarly within [his] [her] own knowledge. The burden is on the defendant to raise a reasonable doubt as to [his] [her] guilt of driving a motor vehicle upon a highway without being the holder of a valid driver's license.")

6People v. Spence (2005) 125 Cal.App.4th 710, 716.  ("[with respect to a California Vehicle Code 12500 VC driving without a valid license prosecution]...the party, if licensed, can immediately show it without the least inconvenience; whereas, if proof of the negative were required, the inconvenience would be very great.'.... [W]here a license would be a complete defense the burden is upon the defendant to prove the fact so clearly within his own knowledge.'" This rule originated in the days when the fact that a person did not hold a license could not be easily ascertained by the body that issues such licenses...we choose not to deviate from the well-established principle of applying the rule of convenience to cases involving licenses.")

7California Vehicle Code 12951 -- Possession of valid driver's license.  ("[With respect to California's driving laws] (a) The licensee shall have the valid driver's license issued to him or her in his or her immediate possession at all times when driving a motor vehicle upon a highway.  Any charge under this subdivision shall be dismissed when the person charged produces in court a driver's license duly issued to that person and valid at the time of his or her arrest, except that upon a third or subsequent charge the court in its discretion may dismiss the charge.")

8California Vehicle Code sections 14601 - 14601.5 all prohibit driving on a suspended or revoked driver's license.  Each code section addresses a different type of licenses suspension (for example, 14601.2 deals with driving on a suspended license due to a California DUI).

9California Jury Instructions -- Criminal.  CALJIC 16.640.  ("In order to prove this crime, each of the following elements must be proved: [1] A person drove a motor vehicle; [2] The person's driving privilege had been previously [suspended] [revoked] for __________; and [3] The person had knowledge that [his] [her] driving privilege had been [suspended] [revoked].")

10The penalties for a second California Vehicle Code 14601VC violation include (1) a maximum one-year county jail sentence, and (2) increased jail time and fines with every subsequent violation within a five-year period.

11California Vehicle Code 40000.11 -- Misdemeanors.  ("A violation of any of the following provisions is a misdemeanor, and not an infraction...(b) [Vehicle Code] Section 12500, subdivision (a), relating to unlicensed drivers.")

12California Vehicle Code 40000.1 - Infractions.  ("[With respect to California's driving laws] Except as otherwise provided in this article, it is unlawful and constitutes an infraction for any person to violate, or fail to comply with any provision of this code, or any local ordinance adopted pursuant to this code.")

13Los Angeles criminal defense attorney John Murray focuses his criminal defense practice on California DUI and driving-related issues.  He defends clients accused of driving without a license in Los Angeles, Orange County, and the South Bay.

14See endnote 11, above.  See also California Penal Code19 -- Punishment for misdemeanor; punishment not otherwise prescribed.  ("Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.") See also California Vehicle Code 14607.6. Motor vehicles subject to forfeiture; driving without a license; impoundment...("(a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, and except as provided in this section, a motor vehicle is subject to forfeiture as a nuisance if it is driven on a highway in this state by a driver with a suspended or revoked license, or by an unlicensed driver, who is a registered owner of the vehicle at the time of impoundment and has a previous misdemeanor conviction for a violation of subdivision (a) of [California Vehicle Code] Section 12500 or Section 14601, 14601.1, 14601.2, 14601.3, 14601.4, or 14601.5.")

15California Penal Code 19.8 -- Infractions; classification of offenses; fines; effect of conviction.  ("Except where a lesser maximum fine is expressly provided for a violation of any of those sections [including California Vehicle Code 12500 VC], any violation which is an infraction is punishable by a fine not exceeding two hundred fifty dollars ($250).")

16California DMV website -- Driver's License and Identification Card Information.  ("State law requires every applicant for an original California identification (ID) card and driver license to show verification of birth date and proof of legal presence within the United States to help safeguard the accuracy and integrity of departmental documents.")

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