Tickets for Driving Without a Valid License

Different types of violations related to unlicensed driving and the associated penalties.

To operate a vehicle in any state, you generally must have a valid driver's license. State licensing processes are designed to ensure all drivers understand the rules of the road and are able to demonstrate their ability to safely operate a vehicle. Licensing systems also allow the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to keep track of drivers' records and take action (such as license suspension) when a driver gets too many tickets, commits a serious driver-related offense, or otherwise poses a risk while behind the wheel.

Given the importance of licensing systems, it's unsurprising that states prohibit and penalize drivers who operate vehicles without a valid license. An unlicensed driving violation might involve a driver who has never had a license or whose license has been suspended or revoked by the DMV or a court. In certain circumstances, the penalties for unlicensed driving can be severe. This article outlines the different types of unlicensed driving violations, the penalties for driving without a license, and some exceptions to the licensing rules.

Licensing Requirements and Exceptions for Drivers

Generally, you must hold a valid license to operate a motor vehicle in any state. However, some exceptions do exist.

State Driver's License Laws

States require proper licenses for the gross majority of drivers. The specific type of license a driver must have depends on various circumstances, including driver age and the type of vehicle the driver will be operating. For instance, a driver operating a class A commercial motor vehicle must possess a Class A commercial driver's license. Also, teen drivers are often required to go through a graduated process and hold various types of permits or intermediate licenses along the way before obtaining an unrestricted license.

Exceptions: When You Don't Need a Driver's License

All states have at least a few exceptions to standard licensing requirements. For example, military and federal vehicles are subject to federal laws and often exempt from state licensing requirements. Some states also have licensing exceptions for operating farm equipment on or around the farm.

Unlicensed Driving Violations

Unlicensed driving comes in several varieties, which generally carry different penalties. Driving while on a suspended or revoked license is a big topic, so we discuss it in its own section below. First, we'll discuss the other three categories: driving having never held a license, expired licenses, and driving without a license in your possession.

Drivers Who Haven't Ever Been Licensed

A driver who's never held a driver's license and is caught operating a vehicle generally faces an infraction charge, which normally carries a fine of up to a few hundred dollars. However, in some states, this type of unlicensed driving is a misdemeanor. Depending on the circumstances, misdemeanor unlicensed driving might carry up to a year in jail and $500 to $2,000 in fines. The driver may also be precluded from testing for a driver's license for a certain period of time following the violation.

Expired Licenses

Driving on an expired license is considered unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. However, most states treat expired licenses more leniently than other types of unlicensed driving. Many states have a grace period (30 days or so) in which violators will just get a warning or will assess only a small fine of like $25 for violations.

Also, judges and prosecutors are often willing to drop the charges altogether if the violator renews his or her driver's license before the court date.

Driving Without a License in Your Possession

Even if you hold a valid license, forgetting your driver's license at home can result in an unlicensed driving citation. States laws generally require drivers to have a license in their possession while operating a vehicle.

The laws of each state are a little different. Some states, like California, charge the offense as misdemeanor unlicensed driving, which carries up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. However, the judge will just dismiss the charge if the driver can show a valid driver's license to the court. In other states, like Colorado, not having a license in your possession is a $15 to $100 traffic ticket.

Some states now permit drivers to use digital evidence of a driver's license on a cell phone, which can be used in lieu of the physical license.

Driving During a License Revocation or Suspension

Lots of different circumstances can lead to the state revoking, restricting, or suspending a person's driving privileges. The most common causes of privilege loss include impaired driving, getting too many traffic tickets, and driving without insurance. The penalties for driving while revoked, suspended, or restricted depend on the state and the circumstances, including the reason the motorist lost driving privileges in the first place.

Driving While Suspended

Operating a vehicle during a suspension is generally a misdemeanor and typically carries something like up to six months in jail and a maximum of $1,000 in fines. The state might also extend the license suspension or require the driver to restart the suspension period.

Driving While Revoked

In many states, driving while "suspended" is synonymous with driving while "revoked." In states that make a distinction, a suspension is normally considered a temporary penalty that prevents the use of a license, whereas revocation is basically the cancelation of your license completely. Following a revocation in one of these states, the driver generally must retest and reapply for a license.

In states that have this distinction, driving on a revoked license is typically a more serious offense than driving while suspended. For example, in Virginia, driving while suspended is a traffic infraction, while driving on a revoked license is a misdemeanor.

Aggravating Factors and the Reason for the Initial Suspension or Revocation

The penalties for driving on a suspended or revoked license generally depend on the reason the driver's license was originally suspended or revoked. For example, many states punish this offense more severely if the motorist lost driving privileges due to a:

In these cases, the driver might face additional penalties such as mandatory or extra jail time, increased fines, and a longer period of license suspension or revocation.

The presence of certain aggravating factors can also increase the penalties for driving while suspended or revoked. For example, being under the influence or injuring another person while suspended or revoked can lead to more severe penalties.