Vehicle Code § 12500, subdivision (a) states that “A person may not drive a motor vehicle upon a highway, unless the person then holds a valid driver’s license issued under [the Vehicle Code], except those persons who are expressly exempted under [the Vehicle Code].”

**Less common violations of California Vehicle Code § 12500 are contained within subdivisions (b) through (e) and deal with situations where the defendant was driving a motorcycle, a scooter, driving in an off-street parking facility, etc. Therefore, if you were cited for violating Vehicle Code § 12500 but were not driving a motor vehicle or were not driving on a highway, then your conduct may still have been in violation of subdivision (b), (c), (d) or (e) of Vehicle Code § 12500. Read those sections of the Vehicle Code for further information.

What the People Must Prove

To prove that the Defendant guilty of Vehicle Code § 12500, subdivision (a), driving without a license, the People must show 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 driver’s license; and
  • **If any exemption might apply, the People must also show that the Defendant was not excused from the requirement to have a California driver’s license.
  • **It is conclusively presumed that you knew that you were driving without a license if a notice was mailed to your last reported residence as it is your responsibility under California law to report every change of address.


A “motor vehicle” includes a passenger vehicle, motorcycle, motor scooter, bus, school bus, commercial vehicle, truck tractor and trailer, etc.

The term “highway” describes any area publicly maintained and open to the public for purposes of vehicular travel, and includes a street.

What Evidence the Defendant Must Produce

The California Criminal Jury Instructions (CALCRIM) states that “Whether the defendant was properly licensed is a matter within his/her own knowledge”. The defendant must produce evidence tending to show that he/she did hold a valid driver’s license. If the evidence raises in [the jury’s] mind a reasonable doubt about whether the defendant held a valid driver’s license, [the jury] must find the defendant not guilty of [California Vehicle Code § 12500].”

What if you have a valid driver’s license in a different state or country?

If you are only visiting or passing through California, you do not need to obtain a California Driver’s license as long as (A) you have a valid driver’s license in your immediate possession from your state/country of residence and (B) you do not have plans to become a California resident. If you intend to stay in California for any prolonged period of time, then you are making California your state of residence, which requires you to obtain a valid California Driver’s License within 10 days of setting up your residence here.

Defenses to California Vehicle Code § 12500(a)

Some Defenses to California Vehicle Code § 12500 are listed in Vehicle Code § 12501 through 12505, and include such things as being a Nonresident Driver (See Vehicle Code for exact definitions). You should ask your criminal defense attorney whether any of the exemptions may apply in your case.

Punishment for violating California Vehicle Code section 12500(a)

Vehicle Code § 12500 can be either a misdemeanor or an infraction. If you are charged with misdemeanor driving without a license in violation of California Vehicle Code § 12500, then you face up to 6 months in a county jail, up to a $1,000 fine, possible informal probation for up to 3 years, and/or a possible 30 day impound of your vehicle. If you are charged with an infraction for driving without a license in violation of California Vehicle Code § 12500 then you face only a fine not to exceed $250.

Immigration Consequences of a Vehicle Code section 12500(a) conviction

Criminal convictions can have drastic immigration consequences, such as deportation, denial of naturalization, exclusion from admission or denial or re-entry. Therefore, if you are not a U.S. citizen and you are charged with driving without a license, it is critical that you speak to a knowledgeable criminal/immigration attorney about your specific immigration status, your current criminal case, and your entire criminal history, to find out what effect a public intoxication conviction would have on your immigration status.