To drive a car in the United States, you are required to have a valid driver’s license. Driving without a valid driver’s license is illegal from coast to coast.
In every state, traffic laws make it unlawful to operate a motor vehicle when:
- The vehicle operator has never been issued a driver's license from the state department of motor vehicles,
- The vehicle operator currently has his or her driver's license temporarily suspended, or
- The vehicle operator has had his or her driver's license permanently revoked.
The traffic laws in most states differentiate between operating a vehicle without a valid driver's/operator's license, and operating a vehicle without proof of licensing (i.e., when a properly licensed driver fails to carry his or her driver's license). The basics of driving without a valid driver's license and penalties for various scenarios are explained below.
When You Forget to Carry Your License While Driving
Of course, people sometimes forget and drive off without their license, but rest assured that people do not get hauled off to the police station simply for failing to carry their license on them. These people can usually prove by other means that they do, in fact, have valid licenses. But the onus is on the driver to prove valid licensure after a ticket or citation has already been issued.
Motorists who don't have their licenses on them may get cited, may get a warning, or may get a ticket – it all depends on the circumstances. If they do receive a ticket, they may be afforded the chance to later prove that they do in fact have a license to avoid a fine. These are commonly called "fix-it tickets," since the recipient can simply fix the problem in order to avoid the fine (also called mechanical violations, since they often involve burned-out headlights or similar issues).
If an officer cites you for driving without a license, you (or your lawyer) must go to court on the scheduled court date in order to defend against it. While driving without a license is a relatively minor offense, it's nonetheless a misdemeanor in most states. A conviction would show up on your criminal record.
Penalties for Driving Without a Valid Driver's License
The penalty for driving without a license varies from state to state. Different states enforce their own penalties for drivers who operate vehicles without their licenses. The amount of a fine for driving without a license can also vary based on how many times a person has been cited. First-time offenders ordinarily receive smaller fines, while drivers with multiple offenses might have to pay larger amounts. You may also expect an increase in insurance costs.
Get Professional Legal Help with Your Traffic Ticket
While it's important to carry a valid driver's license with you every time you sit behind the wheel of an automobile, there may be instances where you forget to grab your wallet, don't realize your license has been suspended, or otherwise lack a valid license. Every situation is a little different, and you may want to speak with a traffic ticket attorney if your situation is particularly complex.
See FindLaw's Types of Traffic Tickets section to learn more.