Penalty for Driving Without a Driver's License in California

By Teo Spengler - Updated July 16, 2018
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Don't think of getting a California driver's license as just another bureaucratic hoop you are supposed to jump through. It's one of the most important legal documents you will ever have, serving as your primary state identification and giving you the right to climb behind the wheel. What happens if you are caught driving without the proper, valid license? Or driving alone with a permit in California? Or not abiding by other driving permit rules? You will be facing a fine and possibly jail time.

Tip

Driving in California without a valid license is a "wobbler"offense, so the prosecutor can charge it as a misdemeanor crime or as an infraction. You can get hit with a hefty fine and even jail time.

Driving Without a License

Driving without a license in California is illegal under California Vehicle Code 12500(a). This offense can take any of several common forms. One is driving alone with a permit in California.

Once you have passed your written test, you have a learner's permit in California. But driving permit rules are quite strict. This permit only gives you the right to practice driving with a licensed adult driver beside you. You are not authorized to drive alone. Driving alone with a permit in California is driving without a license in the eyes of the law.

But breaking driving permit rules is only one way you might be picked up for driving without a license. Another way you might become subject to California Vehicle Code 12500(a) penalties is by never getting a license at all. You will also be in violation of the law if you get a license but fail to renew it before it expires. A California license expires on your fifth birthday after submitting your application for a driver's license. You must apply for and obtain a renewal before the original license expires. There is no grace period for accomplishing this, so if you get stopped one day after your license expires, you are subject to California Vehicle Code 12500(a) penalties.

Avoiding a California Vehicle Code 12500(a) Penalty

The penalties for driving without a license in California can be harsh. Vehicle Code 12500(a) makes the act illegal, but it is a wobbler offense. That means that the prosecutor can either charge it as a misdemeanor or can opt to charge it as an infraction.

Generally, a first offense is charged as a non-criminal infraction. This is less serious than a misdemeanor, but you still might be ordered to pay a fine of up to $250, and the matter goes on your DMV record.

If the act is charged as a misdemeanor, it is a crime that will go on your criminal record. Second and third offenses may be charged this way. If convicted, you may serve up to six months in jail and be ordered to pay a fine of up to a thousand dollars.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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