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If you want to drive a vehicle in California, you must be licensed to do so. This is fairly straightforward. The California Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC lays out the crime of driving in California without a valid driver’s license. Valid has several meanings. First of all, it was legitimately issued in California and has all of your official information contained on it. Secondly, it is not an expired license that should have been renewed but wasn’t. If you fail to renew a driver’s license after it expires, you can be charged until California Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC. Other people simply never had a driver’s license in the first place and knowingly operated a motor vehicle without a license.
Vehicle Code 12500(a) VC
“A person may not drive a motor vehicle upon a highway, unless the person then holds a valid driver’s license issued under this code, except those persons who are expressly exempted under this code.” An exemption might include an entirely different scenario: You drove while your license was suspended by the state. In this case, you’re charged with another crime: Violation of Vehicle Code 14601 VC. This is the more serious charge of driving on a suspended license.
In some cases, this violation is an infraction and in other cases it’s a misdemeanor. If you’re charged with a misdemeanor, you can pay a fine of up to $1,000 and be sentenced to 6 months in county jail. A misdemeanor gives you a criminal record as well, which can stay on your permanent record for life (many people don’t know this). The goal of your defense attorney will be to either dismiss the charge outright by proving that you had a license (it might not have been in your possession at the time) or by getting the charge reduced to an infraction that won’t permanently show up as a criminal record.
The burden of proof here is a little different than in usual cases. It’s the burden of the defense to prove that you do have a valid driver’s license. In some cases, this is easy. You just bring your license to court and the charge can be reduced to a lesser offense. If you didn’t have a valid driver’s license at the time, though, your attorney will attempt to have the charges dismissed or reduced in another way. If it’s a first offense or first crime of any kind, and your defense attorney is skilled, this can be a relatively easy offense to defend.
One thing is for certain: You shouldn’t go to court without a lawyer by your side. A good defense attorney is going to be able to communicate, in legal terms, more clearly with the court (the prosecutor and the judge). They’ll lend credibility to your case and give you tools for defense that you didn’t even know you had. After all, that’s what attorneys go to school and practice for. They’re there to use the law to benefit YOU.
If your lawyer gets your charge dropped to an infraction, you don’t face jail time and you’ll pay a maximum $250 fine, a far cry from the $1,000 fine and 6 months in jail you might face if you get charged with a misdemeanor. Hiring a lawyer can be the one difference standing between you and a short stint in jail, and we all know that no time in jail is going to feel very short. Don’t take any chances. Hire a lawyer and protect yourself against this charge.
If the misdemeanor charge sticks, you could even have your car impounded for a 30-day period, a shocking revelation to so many people who failed to get an attorney, thinking that this was a simple, “Sorry, Your Honor,” charge. It’s not. It’s a serious charge that can lead to serious consequences at the hands of a strict courtroom. Only hiring a lawyer is going to give you your best chance for a great outcome. If you fail to get a lawyer, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a misdemeanor if the circumstances are right. Don’t take a chance!