Driving an unregistered vehicle is illegal in all states. State traffic laws deem it unlawful to operate a motor vehicle when:
- The vehicle has never been registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or equivalent agency in the state where it is primarily used, or
- The vehicle's once-valid registration has expired, meaning required fees and filings were not submitted to the DMV within the registration period
While driving without valid registration is generally not a criminal offense, it is still a serious matter that can result in citations, fines, and other consequences.
Driving Without Registration vs. Driving Without Proof of Registration
Traffic laws in most states differentiate between operating a vehicle that isn't registered and operating a vehicle without proof of registration. Driving without proof of registration happens if you operate a properly registered vehicle but fail to carry the required documentation. Proofs can be a registration certificate or current registration stickers for your license plates.
When on the road, there are a few pieces of information you must have with you. These items, which police typically ask for when they pull over a motorist, are:
Failure to keep these documents in your vehicle at all times can lead to a traffic citation and hefty fines. However, some jurisdictions may issue a "fix-it" ticket in some instances, like for a registration that has recently expired.
In many states, penalties for driving a vehicle with expired registration will increase the longer the registration has lapsed. If the vehicle's registration expired less than six months ago, the infraction might be a non-moving violation, but if the vehicle's registration expired more than six months ago, the offense may be a moving violation. Moving violations can appear as points on your driving record and may lead to increased automobile insurance rates.
Registration-related charges typically result in fines or administrative consequences. Some states, like New York, can even suspend your registration for failure to pay toll fees or other violations. Driving with a suspended car registration in New York is a misdemeanor that carries the possibility of fines, jail time, or both.
Vehicle Registration Exemptions
In most states, certain types of vehicles do not require registration. Some of these exempt vehicles include:
- Off-highway vehicles like dirt bikes, all-terrain vehicles, and snowmobiles
- Stored vehicles
- Vehicles with a non-operating filing from the state's DMV
Check with your local DMV for your area's specific registration requirements.
Vehicle Registration, Renewals, and Safety Testing
Some states require a vehicle safety inspection or emissions test at the time of registration. These additional tests ensure that vehicles meet necessary safety and emissions criteria. Safety inspections typically focus on safety components, like brakes, lights, tires, and steering. Emissions tests measure the level of pollutants emitted by a vehicle's exhaust system.
In states that necessitate these vehicle tests, vehicle owners must schedule and pass these inspections as part of their initial registration or renewal process.
Used Cars and Vehicle Registration
Buying a pre-owned or used car comes with some unique registration rules. Many drivers wonder if they are legally able to drive a used car without registration immediately after purchase. The specific procedure, like the number of days you have to register, depends on your state.
For example, Michigan drivers can drive a newly purchased vehicle without registration, but only if they drive directly to the first place of storage, usually home, within three days of the sale.
Most states mandate that you have the properly assigned title. You should check with your insurance company to ensure your new-to-you vehicle is covered before you hit the road.
You may have to transfer vehicle registration when buying or selling a used vehicle. You will need several documents to ensure a smooth transfer of registration. This process varies by state, but typically buyers will need to submit the following to their DMV:
- Original vehicle title
- Proof of identification
- Vehicle odometer reading
- Proof of insurance
Some automotive dealerships will issue temporary registration while you wait for your permanent license plates and tags. This is often a paper permit that drivers must have in the vehicle at all times, usually in the rear window.
Registration Traffic Offense? Get Legal Help Today
If law enforcement has cited you for driving an unregistered car, you can simply pay the fine, obtain the necessary, and be on your way. You can also choose to contest the citation in traffic court. If you are facing a driver's license suspension or other penalties, this may be the best option.
You'll want a local lawyer on your side who knows the ins and outs of traffic court as well as your state's traffic laws. An experienced traffic ticket attorney can assess your citation, review your legal options, and help you put up the best defense possible.