You or your company can face criminal penalties under California Vehicle Code 35551—known as an “overweight citation”—for driving a vehicle that exceeds a specified weight.1
California's overweight vehicles law exists largely to protect the condition of the state's highways.2
In contrast, most other criminal laws set out in the California Vehicle Code—such as laws against driving under the influence and tampering with vehicle identification numbers—exist because of concerns about road safety or auto theft.
The legal definition of driving an overweight vehicle in California
The legal definition of driving an overweight vehicle is simply to drive a vehicle on a “highway” if the vehicle's weight exceeds the limits set out in Vehicle Code 35551 VC and a related statute, Vehicle Code 35551.5 VC.3
A “highway” means any road or other place that is publicly maintained and open to the public for purposes of vehicular travel.4 (This definition also applies to other criminal sections of the Vehicle Code, such as Vehicle Code 23221 VC drinking alcohol in a motor vehicle.)
The exact weight limit for a particular vehicle under VC 35551 depends on two factors:
- The number of axles the vehicle has; and
- The distance between any group of two (2) or more consecutive axles, measured from their extremes.5
The permitted weights range from a low of thirty-four thousand (34,000) pounds for vehicles with consecutive axles that are eight (8) or fewer feet apart, to a high of eighty thousand (80,000) pounds for vehicles with four (4) or more axles where the consecutive axles are fifty-seven (57) or more feet apart.6
In addition, two consecutive sets of tandem axles may carry additional weight (up to sixty-eight thousand (68,000) pounds total) if the overall distance between the first and last axles of the consecutive sets of tandem axles is thirty-six (36) feet or more.7
Example: Luis runs a trucking company that delivers containers from the Port of Long Beach to railroad freight yards. The containers arrive from other countries and often have been packed without consideration for the state's weight limits.
One day a tanker from China arrives late, carrying a number of containers. Luis knows these containers need to move out quickly in order to meet a deadline. Hal, a driver for Luis's company, transports the containers to a weigh station and reports to Luis that they will make his vehicle overweight.
But Luis is anxious to meet his deadline, and so he tells Hal to drive the containers anyway.
Luis and his company may end up with an overweight citation.
Alternatively, owners of vehicles that contain a trailer or semi-trailer may choose instead to have a vehicle's maximum weight determined under VC 35551.5. This statute provides for:
- A maximum weight of eighteen thousand (18,000) pounds imposed by the wheels of any one axle;
- A maximum weight of nine thousand five hundred (9,500) pounds upon the wheel or wheels supporting one end of any axle; and
- A maximum total gross weight imposed by any group of two (2) or more consecutive axles (for vehicles with consecutive axles that are eighteen (18) or fewer feet apart), OR a maximum total gross weight imposed by the entire vehicle (for vehicles whose consecutive axles are more than eighteen (18) feet apart), which varies depending on the distance between the first and last of the consecutive axles.8
Exception for interstate highways
California Vehicle Code 35551 and 35551.5 VC do not apply to federal interstate highways, such as I-5, I-10 and I-80.9
Example: Marcy is a truck driver. She picks up a load at the Port of Oakland and takes it to Interstate 80, then drives east on the interstate toward the Sierras. Marcy has a hunch that her load is overweight, but she is anxious to meet a deadline and does nothing about it.
If a California law enforcement officer stops Marcy on I-80 and discovers her vehicle is overweight, she is not guilty under California's law against driving overweight vehicles.
However, if you drive on an interstate with an overweight vehicle, you may need to be concerned about federal penalties for violating federal vehicle weight limits.10
Penalties for California overweight citations
In most cases, driving an overweight vehicle is a misdemeanor in California law.11
The potential penalties are:
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation;
- Up to six (6) months in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).12
The exception is if the amount of excess weight is less than four thousand five hundred one pounds (4,501). In this case, VC 35551 is only a California infraction.13
The penalty for overweight vehicles as an infraction is a fine of two hundred fifty dollars ($250).14
Legal defenses against VC 35551 overweight vehicle charges
There is an exception to California's overweight vehicle law for vehicles that are:
- In the immediate vicinity of an unloading or loading area; and
- Actually preparing for or in the process of unloading or unloading.15
This exception applies only if the vehicle's being overweight is incidental to and necessitated by the loading or unloading.16
According to Long Beach criminal defense attorney Elisa Guadan17:
“I've seen a number of cases where a police officer issued an overweight citation to a driver of a truck that was still getting ready for transport. In some of these cases, the driver had not even had a chance to weigh the vehicle to see if it met the weight limits. If a driver's English is poor, he or she may not be able to explain that to the officer, and his/her company gets cited.”
As a result, one of the more common legal defenses to an overweight vehicle citation is that the vehicle falls under the exception for trucks that haven't finalized their loads yet.
Call us for help…
For questions about the crime of Vehicle Code 35551 VC overweight vehicles, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
1 Vehicle Code 35551 VC – Computation of allowable gross weight. (“(a) Except as otherwise provided in this section or Section 35551.5, the total gross weight in pounds imposed on the highway by any group of two or more consecutive axles shall not exceed that given for the respective distance in the following table: [Table.] (b) In addition to the weights specified in subdivision (a), two consecutive sets of tandem axles may carry a gross weight of 34,000 pounds each if the overall distance between the first and last axles of the consecutive sets of tandem axles is 36 feet or more. The gross weight of each set of tandem axles shall not exceed 34,000 pounds and the gross weight of the two consecutive sets of tandem axles shall not exceed 68,000 pounds.”)
2 See Kramer v. Superior Court (1966) 239 Cal.App.2d 500, 502. (“The weight limits obviously are designed to protect the highways (22 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 152).”)
3 Vehicle Code 35551 VC – Computation of allowable gross weight, endnote 1 above.
See also Vehicle Code 35551.5 VC – Alternative method of computation; combinations of vehicles containing trailers or semitrailers. (“(a) The provisions of this section shall apply only to combinations of vehicles which contain a trailer or semitrailer. Each vehicle in such combination of vehicles, and every such combination of vehicles, shall comply with either Section 35551 or with subdivisions (b), (c), and (d) of this section. (b) The gross weight imposed upon the highway by the wheels on any one axle of a vehicle shall not exceed 18,000 pounds and the gross weight upon any one wheel, or wheels, supporting one end of an axle and resting upon the roadway, shall not exceed 9,500 pounds, except that the gross weight imposed upon the highway by the wheels on any front steering axle of a motor vehicle shall not exceed 12,500 pounds. The gross weight limit provided for weight bearing upon any one wheel, or wheels, supporting one end of an axle shall not apply to vehicles the loads of which consist of livestock. The following vehicles are exempt from the front axle weight limits specified in this subdivision: (1) Trucks transporting vehicles. (2) Trucks transporting livestock. (3) Dump trucks. (4) Cranes. (5) Buses. (6) Transit mix concrete or cement trucks, and trucks that mix concrete or cement at, or adjacent to, a jobsite. (7) Motor vehicles that are not commercial vehicles. (8) Vehicles operated by any public utility furnishing electricity, gas, water, or telephone service. (9) Trucks or truck tractors with a front axle at least four feet to the rear of the foremost part of the truck or truck tractor, not including the front bumper. (10) Trucks transporting garbage, rubbish, or refuse. (11) Trucks equipped with a fifth wheel when towing a semitrailer5. (12) Tank trucks which have a cargo capacity of at least 1,500 gallons. (13) Trucks transporting bulk grains or bulk livestock feed. (c) The total gross weight with load imposed on the highway by any group of two or more consecutive axles of a vehicle in such combination of vehicles or of such combination of vehicles where the distance between the first and last axles of the two or more consecutive axles is 18 feet or less shall not exceed that given for the respective distance in the following table: [Table]. (d) The total gross weight with load imposed on the highway by any vehicle in such combination of vehicles or of such combination of vehicles where the distance between the first and last axles is more than 18 feet shall not exceed that given for the respective distances in the following table: [Table].”
4 Vehicle Code 360 VC – Highway [as used in California's law against overweight vehicles]. (““Highway” is a way or place of whatever nature, publicly maintained and open to the use of the public for purposes of vehicular travel. Highway includes street.”)
5 Vehicle Code 35551 VC – Computation of allowable gross weight, endnote 1 above.
8 Vehicle Code 35551.5 VC – Alternative method of computation; combinations of vehicles containing trailers or semitrailers, endnote 3 above.
9 Vehicle Code 35553 VC – Exemptions. (“The provisions of this article shall not apply to any vehicle in the immediate vicinity of an unloading or loading area while actually preparing for or in the process of unloading or loading, provided any overload is incidental to and necessitated by such action; and provided that such action does not occur on a bridge or highway structure. This section shall have no application to highways which are a part of the national system of interstate and defense highways (as referred to in subdivision (a) of Section 108 of the Federal-aid Highway Act of 1956).”)
10 See 23 U.S.C. 127 – Federal vehicle weight limitations.
11 Vehicle Code 40000.23 VC – Misdemeanors. (“A violation of any of the following provisions is a misdemeanor, and not an infraction: . . . (c) Other provisions of Chapter 5 (commencing with Section 35550) of Division 15, which relate to weight restrictions, except in cases of weight violations where the amount of excess weight is less than 4,501 pounds.”)
12 Penal Code 19 PC – 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 [including overweight vehicles] 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.”)
13 Vehicle Code 40000.23 VC – Misdemeanors, endnote 11 above.
14 Penal Code 19.8 PC – Infractions; classification of offenses; fines; effect of conviction. (“(b) Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed, every offense declared to be an infraction [include VC 35551 overweight vehicles] is punishable by a fine not exceeding two hundred fifty dollars ($250).”)
15 Vehicle Code 35553 VC – Exemptions, endnote 9 above.
17 Long Beach criminal defense attorney Elisa Guadan has extensive experience representing trucking companies facing fines under California's overweight vehicles law.