California Vehicle Code § 12500 (a) VC makes it a crime to drive a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license. This offense is a wobbler, meaning that can be charged either as
The language of the code section states that:
12500 (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.
- As a misdemeanor, it carries a penalty of up to 6 months in jail.
- As an infraction, it carries a fine of up to $250.00 but no jail time.
When can VC 12500 be charged?
VC 12500 is a traffic violation typically charged when you are driving and you:
- Have failed to renew a driver’s license (DL), or
- Never obtained a DL in the first place, or
- Become a California resident and fail 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 your DL has been suspended or revoked by the California DMV.
Instead, you 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 you have violated one or more state driving laws.
A first offense is usually an infraction. Subsequent offenses 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
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:
- You were a visitor to California, at least 18 years of age, and you hold a valid DL from your state or country of residence;4
- You were legally exempt from having to have a DL (as discussed in Section 1.1, below), 5
- You were not driving (“no driving” defense), or
- You had a valid DL that wasn’t in your immediate possession when you 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. If I move to California, when do I have to get a license?
- 2. How does a prosecutor prove that I drove without a license?
- 2.1. When do I 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 I refuse to show a driver’s license to a police officer?
- 2.6. What happens if I give false information or identification to a police officer?
- 3. What are the 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 alien get a California driver’s license?
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
You do not need a California DL to drive in the state if you are:
- A government officer or employee driving a vehicle (other than a commercial vehicle) owned or controlled by the U.S. government while on federal business; 8
- Driving an implement of husbandry (such as a tractor) other than on a public road;9
- Driving an off-highway vehicle across a public road;10
- A visitor age 18 and over who holds a valid DL in your home state or country;11
- A nonresident age 21 or older, if you transporting hazardous material and holding a valid DL from another state or Canada to do so;12 or
- A nonresident with a valid diplomatic DL for the type of vehicle(s) you are driving.13
Yes. If you are from out of state, you can legally drive in the state as long as:
- You are at least 18 (or, as set forth in Section 1.4, is 16 or 17),
- You have a current valid DL from the state in which you reside, and
- The DL is valid for the type of vehicle you are driving (car, truck, motorcycle, etc.).14
Yes. If you are from a country other than the U.S., you can use your own DL to drive in the state if:
- You are at least 18,
- You have a current, valid DL issued by your country of residence, and
- The DL covers the type of vehicle you are driving (car, truck, motorcycle, etc.).
What if my country doesn’t issue driver’s licenses?
If your country of residence does not require DLs, you may drive in California if:
- You are at least 18 years old, and
- You are operating a foreign vehicle you own for a maximum of 30 days.15
After the 30-day period, you must obtain a California DL.
State law allows out-of-state drivers who are 16 or 17 to drive in California. These minors 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
- The minor obtained a nonresident minor’s certificate from the California DMV and has filed a proof of financial responsibility in connection therewith.17
A 16 or 17-year-old driver who has these documents in their immediate possession may continue to drive in California for more than ten (10) days.
You must get a state DL within 10 days of becoming a California resident. You become 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 license in California:
- You drove on a street or highway, and
- At the time you drove:
- You did not hold a validly issued DL, or
- You were 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 you are driving, and
- You are not otherwise required to obtain a state DL (for instance because you have 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.”
In a VC 12500 case, the prosecution does not bear the burden of proving that you drove without a DL.
Rather, the prosecution simply has to allege that you were not licensed at the time of driving. The burden then shifts to you to prove that you had a valid DL.22
The logic behind the burden of proof
The logic is that it is easier for you 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. Though state law has not kept up with changes in technology.
Thus it is still the rule that you bear the burden of proving you had a valid license if charged under Vehicle Code 12500(a).
Most Vehicle Code 12500 charges arise when:
- You never obtained a DL,
- You failed to timely renew your DL after it expired, or
- You 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.
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 you for driving without having been issued a current, valid DL at all.
If you were issued a DL but do not have it in your immediate possession, you 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
Even then, the charge will usually be dismissed as long as you present 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 then 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. Though 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 you were 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 if you are stopped by law enforcement, you are not required to show identification – unless you 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).
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 you have a prior conviction for VC 12500 or certain other driving offenses, a possible 30-day impound of your vehicle.
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 your driving history. A first-time offense will usually be charged as an infraction.
Subsequent offenses are more likely to be charged as a misdemeanor (at 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.
Los Angeles prosecutions
The L.A. County D.A.’s office will generally not prosecute VC 12500 cases unless you have been a repeat offender in the prior 24 months.30
There are three main ways you can fight a charge of driving without a DL under California Vehicle Code 12500:
- Prove that you 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 you 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 you to prove you had a valid DL at the time of the alleged offense.
If the DL was issued in California, this should be fairly straightforward.
If the DL was from another state or country, it might involve proving that:
- You were not a state resident (and, therefore, not required to have a state DL); and
- You had a valid DL from another state or country.
Ways a criminal defense lawyer can help you do this include:
- Obtaining DMV records from the other jurisdiction, and
- Proving that you registered to vote and/or pay property taxes in the other jurisdiction.
Unless you are a repeat offender, most prosecutors will allow you to postpone a case and obtain a state DL.
This is particularly helpful if you have 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 they have 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 you had a California arrest warrant at the time of driving without a DL.
If you know or think you might have a warrant out for your arrest, you are advised to consult a California criminal defense attorney.
Yes. If you have no social security number, you can still qualify for an “AB 60 license” in California to drive.
AB60 licenses resemble regular driver’s licenses except that they bear a mark that says “Federal Limits Apply” on the upper right-hand corner.32
Learn more at the California DMV AB 60 Driver’s Licenses information page. Also see our article, Can undocumented immigrants get a California driver’s license?
- 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.” See also: People v. Spence (Cal. App. 4th Dist.), 125 Cal. App. 4th 710; Halajian v. D & B Towing (Cal. App. 5th Dist. 2012), 209 Cal. App. 4th 1.
- 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.” See also: In re V.C. (Cal. App. 3d Dist. 2013), 217 Cal. App. 4th 814, 158 Cal. Rptr. 3d 871; In re Shawnn F. (Cal. App. 5th Dist. 1995), 34 Cal. App. 4th 184.
- 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 your 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.” LADA Special Directive 20-07.
- 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.” California Assembly Bill 60 – the “Safe and Responsible Driver Act.”,