The California Crime of Driving without a License
Vehicle Code 12500 (a) vc


California Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC makes it a crime to drive in California without a valid driver's license.1 You can be charged with this offense if you failed to renew your driver's license or never obtained one in the first place.

Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC reads: "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."

Note that you will not be charged with driving without a license if you drive while your license has been suspended or revoked by the California DMV for any reason. In that case, you will be charged with the generally more serious offense of Vehicle Code 14601 VC driving on a suspended license.

VC 12500 penalties

VC 12500(a) driving without a valid license can be charged as either a California infraction or a California misdemeanor.2

Criminal fines are a common penalty for VC 12500 driving without a license.

The misdemeanor penalties for driving without a license can include up to six (6) months in county jail and/or a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000)--not to mention a criminal record, an often devastating consequence for someone with no prior criminal history.

But a California driving crimes defense attorney can help you determine the best strategies for getting VC 12500 charges either dismissed or reduced to a less-serious infraction.

To help you understand better the California crime of Vehicle Code 12500 VC driving without a license, our criminal defense attorneys will address the following topics:

If, after reading this article, you have additional questions, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group

1. How Does the Prosecutor Prove That I Drove without a License Under VC 12500?

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"):

  1. You drove on a street or highway, and
  2. At the time you drove, you did not hold a validly issued driver's license.3

To be valid, a driver's license doesn't necessarily have to be issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.4 It just must be

  1. a valid driver's license from the state in which you live, and
  2. a valid license for the type of vehicle (car, motorcycle, commercial truck, etc.) that you are driving.5
People who establish residency in California must get a California driver's license or risk being charged under VC 12500.

Situations in which people are typically charged with Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC include those where:

  • The defendant never obtained a driver's license,
  • The defendant failed to renew his/her driver's license after it expired, or
  • The defendant established residency in California but failed to obtain a California driver's license.

Example: Louise comes to California from New York to work a six-month internship. Because her New York driver's license is still valid, she does not bother to get a new California license.

But then Louise's company offers her a permanent position. She registers to vote in California and buys a condo here, thus establishing herself as a California resident. But she does not bother to get a California license.

Louise is guilty of VC 12500 driving without a license because she established residency in California without obtaining a California driver's license.

It should be noted that California Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC only penalizes driving without a validly issued license--not driving without a license in your possession.

If you do have a valid driver's license but simply didn't have it in your possession when you got stopped, this constitutes an infraction under California Vehicle Code 12951 VC, California's law against failing to display a driver's license.6

VC 12951 is a less serious offense than VC 12500 driving without a license--and VC 12951 charges will be dismissed if you provide proof that you did have a valid license when you were stopped.

Example: In one busy afternoon, an officer stops two drivers, Irina and Julio. In both cases the officer initially suspects the driver of DUI, which turns out not to be correct. But in both cases the officer also finds that the driver is unable to produce a driver's license.

It turns out that Julio has a valid license--he had just left his wallet at home that day. He is initially charged with VC 12951 failing to show a driver's license. With the help of a lawyer, he quickly gets the charge dismissed by producing a copy of his valid license.

But Irina had let her license expire without renewing it. As a result, she is charged with the more serious offense of Vehicle Code 12500 VC driving without a valid driver's license.

Burden of proof in Vehicle Code 12500 VC cases

VC 12500 "driving without a license" is a bit different from most crimes in that the prosecution does not bear the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that you are guilty.  

The burden of proof in driving without a valid license cases is different from that for most California crimes.

The prosecution in a Vehicle Code 12500 VC case doesn't have to prove that you weren't licensed. The prosecution simply has to allege that you weren't licensed at the time you drove. Then the burden is on you to prove that you were licensed.7

The logic behind this is that it is easier for a defendant to prove that he is, in fact, licensed than it is for the state to prove that he isn't.8 Although this reasoning is outdated--given our current state of technology where driver's license records are readily accessible to prosecuting agencies--it is still the rule under Vehicle Code 12500(a), California's driving without a license law.

2. What are the Penalties for California Vehicle Code 12500 VC?

Driving without a valid driver's license in California under VC 12500(a) can be charged as either:

  • An infraction, or
  • A misdemeanor.9 

The only consequence of being convicted of Vehicle Code 12500 VC as an infraction is a maximum two hundred fifty dollar ($250) fine.10

But driving without a license as a misdemeanor can lead to the following consequences:

  • Informal (also known as "summary") probation for up to three (3) years,
  • Up to six (6) months in county jail,
  • A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), and/or
  • A possible 30-day impound of your car, if you have a prior conviction for VC 12500 or certain other driving offenses.11

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.  

If you are charged with a misdemeanor under Vehicle Code 12500 VC, you and your attorney may want to attempt to get the charges reduced to an 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 explains12,

"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 highly advisable that you contact an attorney.

3. How Do I Fight a Driving Without a License Charge?

The burden in a VC 12500 case is on the defendant to prove that s/he was in fact licensed. Thus, the best legal defense for fighting driving without a license charges is to show that you did have a driver's license when you were stopped.

Alternatively, if you have recently moved to California and hold a driver's license in another state, you may be able to argue that you had not established California residency and were not obligated to have a California license.

Proving that you actually had a driver's license is one of the most effective ways to fight VC 12500 charges.

If that isn't possible, you should ask your attorney to see how long he/she can postpone your Vehicle Code 12500 VC case so that you can obtain a license. Unless you are a repeat offender, most prosecuting agencies will allow you this courtesy. Obtaining a license is likely to get a misdemeanor driving without a license charge reduced to an infraction.

4. Can Undocumented Immigrants Get California Driver's Licenses?

Until recently, undocumented immigrants could not obtain driver's licenses in California--and thus could not drive without the risk of being charged under VC 12500.

But then the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 60, the Safe and Responsible Driver Act. Effective January 1, 2015, AB 60 requires the DMV to issue driver's licenses to people who meet all requirements for a license other than proof of legal residence in the United States.13

In order to avoid charges for driving without a valid license under Vehicle Code 12500 VC, undocumented immigrants who drive in California should strongly consider applying for a so-called AB 60 license. 

Call us for help . . . 

If you or your 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 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

Whereas driving with no license in California is sometimes just an infraction, the Nevada crime of driving without a license is always charged as a misdemeanor and potentially carries jail time. Learn more about the law at our page on the 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:

  1. California Vehicle Code 12500 VC -- License requirements [driving without a license]. ("(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.")
  2. California 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.")

    See also California Vehicle Code 40000.1 - Infractions.  ("[With respect to California's driving laws, including VC 12500 driving without a license] 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.")

  3. California Jury Instructions -- Criminal.  CALJIC 16.630 Driving without being Licensed [per Vehicle Code 12500 VC].  ("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.")
  4. California Vehicle Code 15020 VC - The Driver's License Compact (DLC) [provides that residents of other states need only have licenses from that state to drive in California without VC 12500 liability].   
  5. See Vehicle Code 12500 VC, subsections (b) through (d).  
  6. California Vehicle Code 12951 VC -- Possession of valid driver's license [lesser offense than California Vehicle Code 12500 driving without a valid license].
  7. California 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.")
  8. People 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.")
  9. See endnote 2, above.
  10. California Penal Code 19.8 PC -- 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).")
  11. California Penal Code 19 PC -- Punishment for misdemeanor [such as VC 12500 driving without a license]; 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 VC -- 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 [driving without a valid license] or Section 14601, 14601.1, 14601.2, 14601.3, 14601.4, or 14601.5.")

  12. Los Angeles criminal defense attorney John Murray focuses his criminal defense practice on California DUI and driving-related issues. He defends clients accused of driving with no license in Los Angeles, Orange County, and the South Bay.
  13. For more information on AB 60, The Safe and Responsible Driver Act, see AB 60 at


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