Under Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC, California law makes it a crime to drive without a valid driver’s license. This offense is a wobbler that can be charged as a misdemeanor or an infraction. As a misdemeanor, it carries a penalty of up to 6 months in jail. As an infraction, it carries a fine up to $250.00.
12500 VC states that “(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.”
The driver’s license does not have to be issued by the State of California. It can be from any jurisdiction as long as (1) it was issued by the state or country in which the driver resides, and (2) it is currently valid for the type of vehicle the driver is driving.
When can VC 12500 be charged?
VC 12500 is a traffic violation typically charged when someone is driving and he or she:
- Has failed to renew a driver’s license (DL), or
- Never obtained a DL in the first place, or
- Becomes a California resident and fails to get a new DL within 10 days.
Difference between driving without a license and driving on a suspended license
Driving without a license is not usually charged when someone’s DL has been suspended or revoked by the California DMV.
Instead, they will be charged with the more serious offense of driving on a suspended license, Vehicle Code 14601 VC.
This is because the DMV will only suspend or revoke a DL if a driver has violated one or more state driving laws.
A first offense is usually an infraction. Subsequent offenses are under VC 12500 are more likely to be charged as a misdemeanor.
As an infraction, driving without a DL carries a potential fine of up to $250.2
But if charged as a misdemeanor, VC 12500 can be punished by:
- Up to six (6) months of county jail time, and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).3
Legal defenses to Vehicle Code 12500, driving without a DL, include showing that:
- The driver was a visitor to California at least 18 years of age who holds a valid DL from his/her state or country of residence;4
- The driver was legally exempt from having to have a DL (as discussed in Section 1.1, below), 5
- The defendant was not driving (“no driving” defense), or
- The defendant had a valid DL that wasn’t in his or her immediate possession when he/she got pulled over.
To help you better understand the law, our California criminal defense lawyers discuss the following, below:
- 1. Who is required to have a driver’s license in California?
- 1.1. Who does not need a California license to drive in California?
- 1.2. Can I drive in California on an out-of-state license?
- 1.3. Is a license from another country valid in California?
- 1.4. Can I drive in California if I am under 18 and from another state or country?
- 1.5. When does someone who moves to California have to get a license?
- 2. How does a prosecutor prove that someone drove without a license?
- 2.1. When does someone violate Vehicle Code 12500?
- 2.2. The burden of proof in VC 12500 cases
- 2.3. Common situations in which driving without a license is charged
- 2.4. What if I get pulled over and don’t have my license with me?
- 2.5. What happens if a driver refuses to show a driver’s license to a police officer?
- 2.6. What happens if someone gives false information or identification to a police officer?
- 3. Penalties for driving without a license under California Vehicle Code 12500
- 4. How can I fight a charge of driving without a license?
- 5. Can an undocumented immigrant get a California driver’s license?
- 5.1. What does an “AB 60 license” do?
- 5.2. What can an AB 60 license NOT do?
- 5.3. How to get an AB 60 driver’s license in California
- 5.4. Is it safe for an undocumented immigrant to get or use a driver’s license?
- 5.5. I am undocumented. Should I get an AB 60 license?
- 5.6. What if I had a driver’s license in a fake name in the past?
State residents who drive on public highways or in parking facilities open to the public must have a valid California driver’s license.6
Vehicle Code 12500(a) provides:
“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.”7
People who do not need a California DL to drive in the state are:
- Government officers or employees driving a vehicle (other than a commercial vehicle) owned or controlled by the U.S. government while on federal business; 8
- Someone driving an implement of husbandry (such as a tractor) other than on a public road;9
- Someone driving an off-highway vehicle across a public road;10
- Visitors age 18 and over who hold a valid DL in their home state or country;11
- Nonresidents age 21 or older, if transporting hazardous material and holding a valid DL from another state or Canada to do so;12 and
- Nonresidents with a valid diplomatic DL for the type of vehicle(s) the person is driving.13
Yes. Someone from out of state can legally drive in the state as long as:
- The individual is at least 18 (or, as set forth in Section 1.4, is 16 or 17),
- He or she has a current valid DL from the state in which he/she resides, and
- The DL is valid for the type of vehicle the person is driving (car, truck, motorcycle, etc.).14
Yes. Someone from a country other than the U.S. can use his/her own DL to drive in the state if:
- The person is at least 18,
- He or she has a current, valid DL issued by his country of residence, and
- The DL covers the type of vehicle the person is driving (car, truck, motorcycle, etc.).
What if my country doesn’t issue driver’s licenses?
Someone whose country of residence does not require DLs may drive in California if:
- The driver is at least 18 years old, and
- The driver is operating a foreign vehicle he or she owns for a maximum of 30 days.15
After the 30-day period, the individual must obtain a California DL.
State law allows out-of-state drivers who are 16 or 17 to drive in California. They can drive for a maximum of ten (10) days immediately following their entry into the state. 16
A 16 or 17-year-old out of state driver is not subject to the 10-day limitation if:
- The minor has a valid DL issued by another state or country, AND
- He or she has obtained a nonresident minor’s certificate from the California DMV and has filed proof of financial responsibility in connection therewith.17
A 16 or 17-year old driver who has these documents in his or her immediate possession may continue to drive in California for more than ten (10) days.
People must get a state DL within 10 days of becoming a California resident. A person becomes a resident by:
- Voting in a California election,
- Paying resident tuition,
- Filing for a homeowner’s property tax exemption, or
- Getting any other privilege or benefit not ordinarily extended to nonresidents.18
This requirement does not include driving to and from a place of employment.
Two facts (“elements of the crime”) must be established to show driving without a DL California:
- The defendant drove on a street or highway, and
- At the time the defendant drove:
- The defendant did not hold a validly issued DL, or
- The defendant was legally required to obtain a state DL.20
As described above, the license doesn’t have to be issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. A DL is valid as long as:
- It is a current, valid DL issued by any state or country,
- It is for the type of vehicle (car, motorcycle, commercial truck, etc.) that the driver is driving, and
- The driver is not otherwise required to obtain a state DL (for instance because he/she has become a California resident). 21
The burden of proof in California “driving without a license” cases is a bit unusual. For most state offenses, the prosecution must prove each element of the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
But In a VC 12500 case, the prosecution does not bear the burden of proving that the defendant drove without a DL.
Rather, the prosecution simply has to allege that the defendant was not licensed at the time of driving. The burden then shifts to the defendant to prove that he/she had a valid DL.22
The logic behind the burden of proof
The logic is that it is easier for a defendant to prove the existence of a license than for the prosecutor to prove the absence of one.23
This reasoning is outdated given that DMV records are readily accessible to prosecuting agencies. But state law has not kept up with changes in technology.
Thus it is still the rule that a defendant bears the burden of proving he or she had a valid license if charged under Vehicle Code 12500(a).
Most Vehicle Code 12500 charges arise when:
- The defendant never obtained a DL,
- The defendant failed to timely renew his/her DL after it expired, or
- The defendant established residency in California but failed to obtain a state DL.
Example: Louise comes to Los Angeles 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 DL.
Louise’s company then offers her a permanent position in L.A. She brings her car out and rents an apartment. At this point she can still use her New York DL.
But then Louise registers to vote in California. This makes her a California resident. She must obtain a state DL within ten (10) days in order to drive in the state.
California Vehicle Code 12500 VC penalizes people who drive without having been issued a current, valid DL at all.
Someone who was issued a DL but doesn’t have it in his/her immediate possession will instead be cited under Vehicle Code 12951 VC, California’s law on failing to display a driver’s license.24
Vehicle Code 12951 is most often charged as an infraction. It can be punished by at most a $250 fine.25
But even then, the charge will usually be dismissed as long as the driver presents the court with a license that was valid at the time of the arrest.26
Example: Irina changes her purse one morning in order to look nice for a job interview. While transferring items, her wallet falls to the floor and Irina doesn’t notice.
Irina than runs into heavier than normal traffic on the 405 Freeway. Once traffic thins, she speeds up so that she won’t be late to her interview.
A California Highway Patrol officer pulls Irina over for speeding (a violation of Vehicle Code 22350 VC). She explains the situation and the officer lets her off the hook for speeding. But he issues her a ticket under VC 12951, which Irina later gets dismissed.
Refusing to show an officer a license is a misdemeanor under VC 12951 if the person was driving. It can be punished by:
- A fine of up to $1,000, and/or
- Up to six (6) months in county jail.27
This charge typically arises when the police pull over someone who does not want to be identified.
California does not have a “stop and identify” statute
Unlike some states (such as Nevada) California does not have a general “stop and identify” law. 28 This means that people stopped by law enforcement are not required to show identification – unless they are driving.29
When an LAPD officer pulls Louise over, she is afraid she’ll be arrested if she gives her name. So she refuses to tell the officer her name or produce her license.
This is a misdemeanor violation of VC 12951, California’s law on refusing to provide identification to a peace officer. So the officer places Louise under arrest (as a Jane Doe).
Two offenses related to refusing to show an officer a DL are:
- Penal Code 148.9 PC – showing false identification to a peace officer, and
- Vehicle Code 31 VC – providing false information to a peace officer.
Both these crimes are misdemeanors, punishable by up to six (6) months in jail and/or a hefty fine.
California Vehicle Code 12500(a) can be prosecuted as either:
- A non-criminal infraction, or
- A misdemeanor charge.
The only consequence of being convicted of Vehicle Code 12500 VC as an infraction is a possible maximum fine of two hundred fifty dollars ($250).
But as a misdemeanor, driving without a license can be punished by:
- Informal misdemeanor (“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
- If the driver has a prior conviction for VC 12500 or certain other driving offenses, a possible 30-day impound of the defendant’s vehicle.30
Factors that determine whether VC 12500 will be charged as an infraction or a misdemeanor
The main factor that the prosecution will consider in a VC 12500 case is the defendant’s driving history. A first time offense will usually be charged as an infraction.
Subsequent offenses are more likely to be charged as a misdemeanor (in the prosecutor’s or the court’s discretion).
An experienced California criminal defense lawyer can often persuade the prosecutor to reduce the charge to an infraction.
We discuss this approach in Section 4.3, below.
There are three main ways a defendant can fight a charge of driving without a DL under California Vehicle Code 12500:
- Prove that the defendant did, in fact, have a valid DL at the time of the offense;
- Try to get the court to postpone the case long enough for the defendant to get a state DL; or
- In the case of a misdemeanor violation, try to bargain the case down to an infraction.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these strategies.
The best legal defense to VC 12500 charges is for the defendant to prove he/she had a valid DL at the time of the alleged offense.
If the DL was issued in California, this should be fairly straightforward.
But if the DL was from another state or country, it might involve proving that:
- The defendant was not a state resident (and, therefore, not required to have a state DL); and
- The defendant had a valid DL from another state or country.
Ways a California criminal defense lawyer can help someone do this include:
- Obtaining DMV records from the other jurisdiction, and
- Proving that the defendant is registered to vote and/or pays property taxes in the other jurisdiction.
Unless the defendant is a repeat offender, most prosecutors will allow the defendant to postpone a case and obtain a state DL.
This is particularly helpful if the defendant has been charged with a misdemeanor violation of VC 12500.
As Los Angeles criminal defense attorney John Murray31 explains:
“If I have a client who I know is eligible to obtain a DL, I will postpone the proceedings so that he has time to obtain one. This usually results in a dismissed charge or, at the most, an infraction.”
That said, a charge reduction may not be so simple if the defendant had a California arrest warrant at the time of driving without a DL.
People who know or think they might have a warrant out for their arrest are advised to consult a California criminal defense attorney.
Yes. As of January 1, 2015, undocumented immigrants in California can obtain a special “AB 60 license” without a social security number. 32 This was the result of California Assembly Bill 60, the “Safe and Responsible Driver Act.”
An AB60 license looks the same as a regular DL, but is marked “Federal Limits Apply” in the upper right-hand corner.
To date, the California DMV has issued more than 1,000,000 AB60 licenses to undocumented aliens.33
An AB 60 license lets people drive legally in the state provided they meet all other qualifications (such as insurance and passing a driver’s test).
The license can also be used as legal identification with California law enforcement agencies.
An AB 60 license is not valid for official federal purposes. Therefore it does NOT:
- Make the holder eligible for employment,
- Allow the holder to register to vote, or
- Allow the holder to obtain public benefits.34
It also does not protect against discrimination from:
- Federal law enforcement agencies, or
- Law enforcement from other states.
When not to use an AB 60 license
Because an AB license does not offer federal protection, it should not be presented to federal officials. Federal officials include those from:
- United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),
- Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and
- The Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) (when boarding a flight leaving from or arriving in a U.S. city).35
We also recommend using caution in other states (which may or may not have laws and/or policies protecting undocumented immigrants).
Undocumented aliens can apply for an AB 60 DL as long as:
- They can prove their identity and California residence, and
- They otherwise qualify for a license.
Learn how to apply for an AB 60 license by visiting the DMV’s “AB 60 driver license” webpage.
Immigrants can learn what documents they need to prove residence by visiting the California DMV’s AB60 Checklist webpage.
As of now yes, unless ICE is already looking for the immigrant.
Under California AB 60, law, state and local law enforcement agencies may not:
- Discriminate against a holder of an AB-60 license,36 or
- Use such a license as a basis for “investigation, arrest, citation or detention.”37
Therefore, showing an AB60 license to an officer should not result in an arrest for unlawful presence.
But note that an immigrant may still be arrested in a situation in which the officer would arrest someone who is here lawfully.
This potentially puts federal law in conflict with new California “sanctuary state” protections.
Senate Bill 54 and California “Sanctuary State” protections
California Senate Bill 54 introduced new protections for undocumented immigrants. It amended the Government Code to make the state a so-called “sanctuary state” as of January 1, 2018.
Among its many provisions, SB 54:
- Prohibits state and local law enforcement officers from asking about immigration status; and
- Prohibits law enforcement from sharing information about status with federal immigration authorities unless:
- The information is available to the general public, or
- The immigrant is a registered sex offender, or
- The immigrant has been convicted of any of 31 specified serious crimes in the last 15 years.38
California DMV records do not identify license by AB 60 status
State DMV records do not identify licenses by whether they are regular or AB 60 licenses.
But the DMV can respond to a request from the Department of Homeland Security. 39
So if ICE is already looking for a specific person, the DMV can provide DHS with the person’s address and photo.
Also, according to The Verge, dozens of California agencies share data on license plate numbers through a network accessible by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).40
How does the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy change things?
The short answer is no one knows.
Under President Donald Trump, the current White House administration has issued a “zero tolerance” policy on unlawful immigration.41 And some California jurisdictions have announced a desire and/or intention to ignore California’s sanctuary law.42
It is a personal decision.
In general, we recommend that someone who is not in trouble with the law get an AB 60 license if they will be driving in California.
An AB 60 license allows an immigrant to drive lawfully in California. So having one can prevent an immigrant from getting arrested for VC 12500 driving without a license.
What if I have a criminal history?
Getting a DL may be risky for someone with a criminal record. DHS and other law enforcement agencies can use DMV’s databases to locate persons of interest.
People in this situation may wish to consult with an experienced California criminal and immigration lawyer before applying.
Regardless, we recommend that immigrants exercise caution when dealing with law enforcement.
In particular, we advise that people in the U.S. unlawfully, not answer questions relating to immigration status or disclose their status without first speaking to a lawyer.
The DMV’s current policy is not to pursue criminal prosecution of someone who used false information in the past as long as doing so did not cause any harm.
But the DMV requires disclosure of prior DLs. People who used someone else’s social security number or identification are at higher risk than people who made up fake information.
And, as noted above, the DMV can share information with federal law enforcement officials if they are already looking for a specific person.
To be safe, people in this situation should consult with a California criminal attorney before applying for a DL.
For additional help…
Call us or complete the form on this page to discuss your driving without a license citation.
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.
We can also represent you if you were charged with driving without a license in Nevada (NRS 483.230).
- California Vehicle Code section 40000.11
- Penal Code 19.8 PC, endnote 1.
- Penal Code 19 PC: “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 California DMV Handbook, “Who Must Have a Driver License?”
- California Vehicle Code 12501, endnote 1.
- See endnote 5.
- See also California Vehicle Code 12501: “The following persons are not required to obtain a [DL]:(a) An officer or employee of the United States, while operating a motor vehicle owned or controlled by the United States on the business of the United States, except when the motor vehicle being operated is a commercial motor vehicle, as defined in Section 15210.(b) Any person while driving or operating implements of husbandry incidentally operated or moved over a highway, except as provided in Section 36300 or 36305.(c) Any person driving or operating an off-highway motor vehicle subject to identification, as defined in Section 38012, while driving or operating such motor vehicle as provided in Section 38025. Nothing in this subdivision authorizes operation of a motor vehicle by a person without a valid [DL] upon any offstreet parking facility, as defined in subdivision (c) of Section 12500.”
- Vehicle Code 12501(a).
- Vehicle Code 12501(b).
- Vehicle Code 12501(c).
- Vehicle Code 12502 (a)(1).
- VC 12502 (a)(2).
- VC 12502 (a)(3).
- VC 12502(a)(1).
- VC 12503.
- VC 12504(a): “ Sections 12502 and 12503 apply to any nonresident over the age of 16 years but under the age of 18 years. The maximum period during which that nonresident may operate a motor vehicle in this state without obtaining a [DL] is limited to a period of 10 days immediately following the entry of the nonresident into this state except as provided in subdivision (b) of this section.”
- VC 12504 (b): “Any nonresident over the age of 16 years but under the age of 18 years who is a resident of a foreign jurisdiction which requires the licensing of drivers may continue to operate a motor vehicle in this state after 10 days from his or her date of entry into this state if he or she meets both the following:(1) He or she has a valid [DL], issued by the foreign jurisdiction, in his or her immediate possession.(2) He or she has been issued and has in his or her immediate possession a nonresident minor’s certificate, which the department issues to a nonresident minor who holds a valid [DL] issued to him or her by his or her home state or country, and who files proof of financial responsibility.(c) Whenever any of the conditions for the issuance of a nonresident minor’s certificate cease to exist, the department shall cancel the certificate and require the minor to surrender it to the department.”
- VC 12505(c): “Any person entitled to an exemption under Section 12502, 12503, or 12504 may operate a motor vehicle in this state for not to exceed 10 days from the date he or she establishes residence in this state, except that a person shall not operate a motor vehicle for employment in this state after establishing residency without first obtaining a [DL] from the department.”
- California Jury Instructions – CALCRIM 2221 – To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: 1. The defendant drove a motor vehicle on a highway; [AND] 2. When the defendant drove, (he/she) did not hold a valid California [DL] [AND] 3. The defendant was not excused from the requirement to have a California [DL]. See also Vehicle Code sections 12504(b) and 12505(c).
- See California Vehicle Code 15000 and subsequent sections, which codify the interstate Driver License Compact (DLC), particularly Vehicle Code 15020.
- 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 [DL] to operate a motor vehicle. 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 [DL].”
- People v. Spence (2005) 125 Cal.App.4th 710.
- VC 12951:(a) The licensee shall have the valid [DL] 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 [DL] 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. When a temporary, interim, or duplicate [DL] is produced in court, the charge shall not be dismissed unless the court has been furnished proof by the Department of Motor Vehicles that the temporary, interim, or duplicate [DL] was issued prior to the arrest, that the driving privilege and [DL] had not been suspended or revoked, and that the person was eligible for the temporary, interim, or duplicate [DL].(b) The driver of a motor vehicle shall present his or her [DL] for examination upon demand of a peace officer enforcing the provisions of this code.
- Penal Code 19.8 PC.
- An exception is if it is the driver’s third or subsequent charge. See Vehicle Code 12951, endnote 18.
- Penal Code 19 PC.
- See, e.g., Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial Dist. Court of Nev., Humboldt Cty., 542 U.S. 177 (2004).
- See ACLU Southern California, In California, You Have the Right Not to Show Your Id to Law Enforcement … in Most Cases.
- Penal Code 19 PC.See also California Vehicle Code 14607.6 (a) VC: “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 [DL], 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 Section 12500 or Section 14601, 14601.1, 14601.2, habitual traffic offenders per Vehicle Code 14601.3, 14601.4, or 14601.5.”
- 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 [DL] in Los Angeles, Orange County, and the South Bay.
- VC 12801.9(a) “Notwithstanding Section 12801.5, the department shall issue an original [DL] to a person who is unable to submit satisfactory proof that the applicant’s presence in the United States is authorized under federal law if he or she meets all other qualifications for licensure and provides satisfactory proof to the department of his or her identity and California residency.”
- See “More than a million undocumented immigrants have received California [DLs],” Sacramento Bee, April 4, 2018.
- See VC 12801(d)(2): “The license shall bear the following notice: ‘This card is not acceptable for official federal purposes. This license is issued only as a [DL] to drive a motor vehicle. It does not establish eligibility for employment, voter registration, or public benefits.’”
- For a list of acceptable forms of identification, see Transportation Security Administration, Identification.
- VC 12801.9 (h): “It shall be a violation of law, including, but not limited to, a violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act (Section 51 of the Civil Code), to discriminate against an individual because he or she holds or presents a [DL] issued under this section.”
- VC 12801.9 (k), which codified AB 60 Sec. 2(b): “A driver’s license issued pursuant to [Vehicle Code] Section 12801.9 shall not be used as evidence of the holder’s citizenship or immigration status, and shall not be used as a basis for a criminal investigation, arrest, or detention in circumstances where a person with a driver license that was not issued under Section 12801.9 would not be criminally investigated, arrested, or detained.”
- See California Government Code 7282 and subsequent sections.
- See 8 U.S. Code 1373, which prohibits state and local law enforcement from
- See “California claims sanctuary status, but 80 state agencies still share license plate data widely,” The Verge, March 1, 2018.
- See “Trump administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ border enforcement policy to separate more families,” CNN, May 7, 2018.
- See “More California cities looking to reject state’s sanctuary law,” Fox News, March 22, 2018. See also “President Trump is set to meet California leaders fighting state sanctuary laws that protect undocumented immigrants,” CNBC, May 15, 2018.