Under Vehicle Code § 14601.3 VC, California designates you as a “habitual traffic offender” if you (a) drive on a suspended license, and (b) have too many points on your driving record. This can be punished by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1000.00.
Examples of HTOs include:
- After getting her license suspended for DUI, Debbie continues to drive and gets two speeding tickets (per VC 22350) in three months.
- Although his license was revoked, Germane drives the next day and is ticketed for running a red light and making an illegal turn (per VC 21453);
- Carlos drives on a suspended license for several months and gets into three accidents while doing so.
Luckily, there are several legal defenses that a person can raise if accused of a crime under this section. These include showing that an accused party:
- Had no notice or knowledge of a license suspension;
- Acted out of necessity; and,
- Was falsely arrested.
A first conviction results in imprisonment in a county jail for 30 days and a $1,000 fine.
A second, or any additional conviction, results in imprisonment in a county jail for 180 days and a $2,000 fine.
Our California criminal defense attorneys will address the following in this article:
- 1. How does California law define a habitual traffic offender?
- 2. Are there defenses to Vehicle Code 14601.3 VC?
- 3. What are the penalties and sentencing?
- 4. Are there related offenses?
1. How does California law define a habitual traffic offender?
California Vehicle Code 14601.3 VC penalizes habitual traffic offenders (HTOs).
A driver gets HTO status if he drives on a suspended or revoked license and accumulates a driving record history. A history is created when a driver receives points on his DMV record.1
Under this section, a prosecutor must prove the following elements to show that a person is a habitual traffic offender:
- The defendant drove a motor vehicle;
- The defendant’s driving privileges had been previously suspended or revoked;
- The defendant knew of this suspension/revocation; and,
- Within a year of the suspension/revocation, the defendant endured:
- Two or more convictions that resulted in two points on his DMV record.
- Three or more convictions that resulted in one point on his DMV record.
- Three or more accidents that were subject to the reporting requirements of VC 16000.2
As to the third element above, knowledge, a driver is presumed to have knowledge of a suspension/revocation if the DMV mailed such a notice to the driver. As to the fourth element above, the convictions do not have to be from separate acts.3
2. Are there defenses to Vehicle Code 14601.3 VC?
A person accused of this offense can challenge the accusation by raising a legal defense. A good defense can often get a charge reduced or even dismissed. Please note, though, that it is critical for an accused to hire an attorney to get the most effective defense.
Three common defenses are that the accused person:
- Had no notice or knowledge of license suspension;
- Acted out of necessity; and/or,
- Was falsely arrested.
2.1. No Notice or Knowledge of License Suspension
Recall that a person can only be charged under Vehicle Code 14601.3 if he knows that his driving privileges were previously suspended or revoked. A driver typically gains this knowledge by receiving a notice from the DMV, via regular mail, that informs of the suspension/revocation.
Thus, a solid defense is for a person to assert that he never received proper notice, and therefore, had no knowledge that his license was in fact suspended or revoked.
Under a necessity defense, a defendant tries to avoid guilt by showing that he had a good reason to commit the crime. People sometimes refer to this defense as “guilty with an explanation.” In the context of habitual traffic offender charges, an accused could attempt to show that he only drove on a suspended or revoked license, or committed a moving violation, since he had no other choice (e.g., because of an emergency).
2.3. False Arrest
Traffic offenses and accidents often happen quickly. Therefore, it is sometimes very difficult to find eyewitnesses who can corroborate charges under VC 14601.3. This can lead to false arrests and misidentifications of offenders. If a prosecutor cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is the person who committed an offense, or caused an accident, then the charges should be dismissed.
3. What are the penalties and sentencing?
The penalties for habitual traffic offender status depend on the defendant’s number of convictions under Vehicle Code 14601.3.
Upon a first conviction, a defendant receives:
- Imprisonment in a county jail for 30 days; and,
- A $1,000 fine.
Upon a second conviction, or any subsequent offense within seven years of a prior conviction, a defendant receives:
- Imprisonment in a county jail for 180 days; and,
- A $2,000 fine.
4. Are there related offenses?
The following offenses are related to charges involving habitual traffic offenders:
- Driving with a suspended license – VC 14601;
- Driving without a license – VC 12500(a); and,
- Failing to present a driver’s license – VC 12951.
4.1. Driving with a Suspended License – VC 14601
California Vehicle Code 14601 VC makes it a crime for a person knowingly to operate a motor vehicle with a suspended or revoked driver’s license. There would need to be a license reinstatement for the defendant to lawfully drive.4
California law presumes a person knows of a driver’s license suspension or revocation if ALL of the following three things are true:
- The California DMV mailed a notice to a party informing him that his license had been suspended or revoked;
- That notice was sent to the person’s most recent address, as reported by that person to the DMV; and,
- The notice was not returned to the DMV as undeliverable or unclaimed.5
A person can be guilty of driving on a suspended license if his license was suspended or revoked for any number of reasons, including:
- Being declared a negligent operator for too many points on his license,
- A mental or physical disability, and/or
- A conviction for California DUI.
Driving on a suspended license is a California misdemeanor. The potential punishment includes a county jail sentence and substantial fines.6
However, the exact penalty for VC 14601 driving on a suspended license will depend on why a person’s license was suspended or revoked in the first place.
4.2. Driving without a License – VC 12500(a)
Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC makes it unlawful to drive in California without a valid driver’s license.
The driver’s license does not have to be from California. It can be from any jurisdiction as long as:
- It was issued by the state or country in which the driver resides, and
- It is currently valid for the type of vehicle the driver is driving.7
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 license carries a potential fine of up to $250.9
But if charged as a misdemeanor, VC 12500 can be punished by:
- Up to six months in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $1,000.10
4.3. Failing to Present a Driver’s License – VC 12951
A driver in California is subject to penalties for failing to present a driver’s license, per Vehicle Code 12951 VC.
There are two ways to violate VC 12951.
The first, outlined in Vehicle Code 12951(a) VC, is for a motorist to drive on a highway without having his valid driver’s license in his possession.11
The second way a person violates this law, as outlined in VC 12951(b), is when he simply refuses to present a license to an officer when requested to do so.12
The penalties for failing to present a driver’s license in California depend on whether a driver has violated Vehicle Code 12951(a) or Vehicle Code 12951(b).
If a motorist simply drives without a valid license in his possession, he will be charged with a California infraction.13 The only penalty is a fine of up to $250.14
A person successfully charged with VC 12951(b) will be guilty of a misdemeanor.15 The potential penalties are:
- Up to six months in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to $1,000.16
- California Vehicle Code 14601.3 VC. The language of the statute reads as follows:
(a) It is unlawful for a person whose driving privilege has been suspended or revoked to accumulate a driving record history which results from driving during the period of suspension or revocation. A person who violates this subdivision is designated an habitual traffic offender. For purposes of this section, a driving record history means any of the following, if the driving occurred during any period of suspension or revocation:(1) Two or more convictions within a 12-month period of an offense given a violation point count of two pursuant to Section 12810.(2) Three or more convictions within a 12-month period of an offense given a violation point count of one pursuant to Section 12810.(3) Three or more accidents within a 12-month period that are subject to the reporting requirements of Section 16000.(4) Any combination of convictions or accidents, as specified in paragraphs (1) to (3), inclusive, which results during any 12-month period in a violation point count of three or more pursuant to Section 12810.(b) Knowledge of suspension or revocation of the driving privilege shall be conclusively presumed if mailed notice has been given by the department to the person pursuant to Section 13106. The presumption established by this subdivision is a presumption affecting the burden of proof.(c) The department, within 30 days of receipt of a duly certified abstract of the record of any court or accident report which results in a person being designated an habitual traffic offender, may execute and transmit by mail a notice of that designation to the office of the district attorney having jurisdiction over the location of the person’s last known address as contained in the department’s records.(d) (1) The district attorney, within 30 days of receiving the notice required in subdivision (c), shall inform the department of whether or not the person will be prosecuted for being an habitual traffic offender.(2) Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, any habitual traffic offender designated under subdivision (b) of Section 23546, subdivision (b) of Section 23550 VC, or subdivision (b) of Section 23550.5, who is convicted of violating Section 14601.2 shall be sentenced as provided in paragraph (3) of subdivision (e).(e) Any person convicted under this section of being an habitual traffic offender shall be punished as follows:(1) Upon a first conviction, by imprisonment in the county jail for 30 days and by a fine of one thousand dollars ($1,000).(2) Upon a second or any subsequent offense within seven years of a prior conviction under this section, by imprisonment in the county jail for 180 days and by a fine of two thousand dollars ($2,000).(3) Any habitual traffic offender designated under Section 193.7 of the Penal Code or under subdivision (b) of Section 23546, subdivision (b) of Section 23550, subdivision (b) of Section 23550.5, or subdivision (d) of Section 23566 who is convicted of a violation of Section 14601.2 shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail for 180 days and by a fine of two thousand dollars ($2,000). The penalty in this paragraph shall be consecutive to that imposed for the violation of any other law.(f) This section also applies to the operation of an off-highway motor vehicle on those lands to which the Chappie-Z’berg Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Law of 1971 (Division 16.5 (commencing with Section 38000)) applies as to off-highway motor vehicles, as described in Section 38001.
- California Vehicle Code 14601.3(a)(1) -(a)(3) VC. In the event of a motor vehicle crash, motorists may not leave the scene of an accident causing injury, involuntary manslaughter, or property damage.
- California Vehicle Code 14601.3(b) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 14601-14601.5 VC.
- Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) 2220.
- See California Vehicle Code 14601 VC – 14601.5 VC.
- California Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 40000.11 VC.
- Penal Code 19.8 PC.
- Penal Code 19 PC.
- California Vehicle Code 12951(a) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 12951(b) VC.
- Vehicle Code 12951 VC.
- Penal Code 19.8 PC.
- Vehicle Code 40000.11 VC.
- Penal Code 19 PC.