Many people are aware that you can be charged with a crime for driving without a license or driving on a suspended license. But fewer people know that you can face criminal penalties if you have a valid driver's license but either:
- Drive without that license in your possession; or
- Refuse to show that license to a law enforcement officer who is enforcing California's Vehicle Code.1
In this article, our California criminal defense attorneys discuss California Vehicle Code 12951 CVC, which makes it a crime to fail to present a driver's license.2
The legal definition of failure to show a driver's license
There are two ways to violate this section.
The first, set forth in Vehicle Code 12951(a), is to drive a motor vehicle on a highway without the valid driver's license issued to you in your possession.3
Example: Charlie gets a call at work saying that his young daughter has gotten very sick at school. Charlie jumps in his car to go pick her up. He accidentally drives above the speed limit and is pulled over.
At that moment Charlie realizes he has forgotten his wallet, which contains his driver's license, at work. He explains the situation to the officer and luckily has his driver's license number memorized.
The officer verifies his information and issues him two tickets, one for speeding and one for Vehicle Code 12951(a) VC driving without his license in his possession.
The second way to violate this law is to refuse to present a license to a peace officer. This form of the offense is set forth in Vehicle Code 12951(b) CVC.4
Specifically, you violate Vehicle Code 12951(b) if all of the following are true:
- You drove a motor vehicle;
- A peace officer, enforcing the California Vehicle Code, demanded that you present your driver's license for the officer to examine; and
- You did not present your driver's license in response to the officer's request.5
A “motor vehicle” includes all of the following:
- Passenger vehicles;
- Motor scooters;
- School buses;
- Commercial vehicles; and
- Truck tractors and trailers.6
Example: Rachel is 17 and has a valid driver's license. She has been fighting with her parents, and they have told her that she can no longer use their cars.
But one Saturday night Rachel takes her mother's car keys out of her purse and sneaks out of the house in her mother's car. She goes to a friend's house and smokes marijuana. Then while she is driving home she is pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer.
Rachel has just violated this section by refusing to produce her driver's license for a peace officer.
Penalties for violating California Vehicle Code 12951(a)
The penalties for failing to present a driver's license in California depend on whether you have violated Vehicle Code 12951(a) (by driving without a license in your possession) or Vehicle Code 12951(b) (by refusing to show your license to an officer).
If you simply drive without your valid license in your possession, you will be charged with a California infraction.7 The only penalty is a fine of up to two hundred fifty dollars ($250).8
Plus, if you can produce for the court a driver's license duly issued to you and valid at the time of your arrest, the court is required to dismiss the VC 12951(a) VC charge against you.
The only exception is if this is your third or subsequent charge for this offense, in which case the judge may—but is not required to—dismiss the charge.9
Penalties for violating California Vehicle Code 12951(b)
However, if you are charged under VC 12951(b) for refusing to show your license to a peace officer, then the offense of not showing a driver's license becomes a misdemeanor in California law.10
The potential penalties for failing to display a license as a misdemeanor are:
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation;
- Up to six (6) months in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000).11
Legal defenses against charges of failure to show a license
According to Whitter criminal and Vehicle Code defense attorney John Murray12:
“We've seen a number of common legal defenses work to help our clients beat the charges. These include the defense that the officer who stopped you was not actually enforcing the Vehicle Code when he or she asked for your license, and the defense that the officer who stopped you violated California search and seizure laws.”
And, of course, if you are charged with failure to show a driver's license as an infraction, you can get the charge dismissed by showing that you had a valid license at the time of your arrest.
But even in that case, it makes sense to proceed with the help of a California criminal defense attorney, who can make sure that there is no doubt about your eligibility for a charge dismissal.
Call us for help…
For questions about the law, 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.
For more information on “driving without a license” in Nevada, please see our page on driving without a license in Nevada.
1 Vehicle Code 12951 VC – Possession of valid driver's license. (“(a) The licensee shall have the valid driver's license 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 driver's license 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 driver's license 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 license was issued prior to the arrest, that the driving privilege and license had not been suspended or revoked, and that the person was eligible for the temporary, interim, or duplicate license. (b) The driver of a motor vehicle shall present his or her license for examination upon demand of a peace officer enforcing the provisions of this code.”)
5 Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (“CALCRIM”) 2222 – Failing to Present Driver's License (Veh. Code, § 12951(b)). (“The defendant is charged [in Count ] with failing to present (his/her) driver's license to a peace officer [in violation of Vehicle Code section 12951(b)]. To prove that the defendant is guilty of this crime, the People must prove that: 1. The defendant drove a motor vehicle; 2. A peace officer, enforcing the Vehicle Code, demanded that the defendant present (his/her) driver's license for the officer to examine; AND 3. The defendant did not present (his/her) driver's license in response to the officer's request.”)
6 CALCRIM 2222 – Failing to Present Driver's License (Veh. Code, § 12951(b)). (“[A motor vehicle includes a (passenger vehicle/motorcycle/motor scooter/bus/school bus/commercial vehicle/truck tractor and trailer/<insert other type of motor vehicle>).]”)
7 Vehicle Code 12951 VC – Possession of valid driver's license, endnote 1 above.
See also California Jury Instructions – Criminal (“CALJIC”) 16.632 – Failure to Present License Upon Demand. (“COMMENT Vehicle Code § 12951(b), is a misdemeanor per Vehicle Code § 40000.11(h). The third paragraph paraphrases Vehicle Code § 12951(a), a violation of which is an infraction.”)
8 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 [including failing to show a driver's license as an infraction] is punishable by a fine not exceeding two hundred fifty dollars ($250).”)
9 Vehicle Code 12951 VC – Possession of valid driver's license, endnote 1 above.
10 Vehicle Code 40000.11 VC – Misdemeanors. (“A violation of any of the following provisions is a misdemeanor, and not an infraction: . . . (i) Section 12951, subdivision (b), relating to refusal to display license. . . .”)
11 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 VC 12951(b) failing to show a license] 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.”)
12 Whitter criminal and Vehicle Code defense attorney John Murray has earned a statewide reputation for representing clients in both criminal court and DMV hearings throughout southern California, including in the City of Commerce, Covina, El Segundo, Oxnard, San Bernardino, and Van Nuys. He has extensive expertise with California Vehicle Code violations and with helping criminal defense clients keep their driver's licenses.