Driving Without a License: Presenting Proof of a Valid License

Learn why you should present proof of a valid license and the penalty for driving without a license.

All states require motorists to have a valid driver’s license when operating a vehicle on a public road. It’s a crime everywhere to drive

  • without ever having obtained a license
  • with a license that has been suspended, or
  • with a license that’s been revoked.

A suspended license is one that has been taken away temporarily. In some situations, the suspension period automatically expires and the license becomes valid again; in other situations, drivers must apply to the issuing agency to reinstate their licenses. A revoked license, on the other hand, has been canceled. A license may be permanently revoked, or for only a set period of time. If the revocation is not permanent, the driver must wait the prescribed time period and then re-apply for a new license.

Drivers must carry their drivers’ licenses and vehicle registrations while operating a vehicle and display them when properly asked by law enforcement. All states require that drivers have automobile insurance or, at a minimum, proof that the driver is able to pay for any damage to people or property that he or she may cause.

It is also a crime to drive in violation of restrictions that have been placed on the driver’s license. For example, a person who may drive only to and from work due to the effects of a driving under the influence conviction violates the law when driving for any other purpose.

Penalties

Driving without a valid license – whether the driver has a suspended or revoked license, or no license at all – is usually treated as a misdemeanor. In some states, driving without a license is not a crime unless the driving occurs on a public highway. In others the location of the driving is irrelevant.

In all states the driver need not own the vehicle in order to be criminally prosecuted for a license violation. In addition to criminal penalties, most car insurance companies will make it much more costly for a driver to obtain or continue automobile insurance after a license violation.

Presenting Proof of a Valid License

It is also a crime to fail or refuse to display one’s driver’s license on the demand of a police officer. Some states presume that a driver who fails to display his or her license upon a proper request doesn’t have one. However, those states allow the driver to disprove this presumption by presenting an actual, valid license.

Does an Officer Need a Reason to Stop Me?

To lawfully detain a driver, an officer needs only a “reasonable suspicion” – based on the facts of the situation – that the motorist has violated the law. For example, a missing license plate or erratic driving provides a valid basis for a traffic stop. But if the officer doesn’t have “reasonable suspicion,” there is no legal authority for the stop; any evidence the officer learns or observes as a result of the detention will be inadmissible in court. Thus, a detention is illegal where the officer stops a vehicle because of the driver’s ethnicity, or because of an unspecified hunch that the driver doesn’t have a valid driver’s license. If the officer learns during that detention that the motorist doesn’t have a valid license, most of the time the motorist cannot be convicted of driving without a valid license.

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