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VC 12500(a) Driving without a license in California

VC 12500(a) California Traffic Lawyer Mark A. GallagherThe Basics of VC 12500

California Vehicle Code Section 12500 or VC 12500(a) requires you to have a valid license to drive a car in California.  Seems simple enough right? You gotta have a license to drive, everyone knows that by the time they are old enough to drive.   No license? Pulled over? You are likely getting a ticket for VC 12500.   Keep in mind that if you were driving with a suspended license, you will likely be charged under VC 14601 which is an entirely different animal.

Is VC 12500 an infraction or a misdemeanor?

VC 12500 is what is known as a “wobblette” under California law.  This legal slang means that the charge can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or an infraction in the discretion of the prosecuting attorney.   The Judge hearing your case will also have the authority under PC 19.8 to reduce the charge from a misdemeanor to an infraction in his or her discretion.  The distinction between an infraction and a misdemeanor is critical.   An infraction by law can only carry a fine as a penalty.  A misdemeanor violation for the exact same crime can carry up to 6 months in the county jail.   Read that again.  The exact same crime can be a fine only, or can carry up to 6 months in jail.   So obviously we want to make sure to avoid the misdemeanor.  Misdemeanor cases can also result in you being placed on probation by the court and they can carry immigration consequences.  Furthermore, a misdemeanor conviction will become part of your criminal history and is reported to the Department of Justice or the DOJ.

Is my ticket for VC 12500 an infraction or misdemeanor?

Only time will tell on this one.   Many people make the mistake of assuming that this can be determined by looking at the ticket itself.   If you take a close look at the center section of your ticket, you may see that the officer has written on the ticket VC 12500 misdemeanor, or VC 12500 infraction.   Some law enforcement agencies have a section on the ticket where the officer can circle an M for misdemeanor or an I for infraction.  While this will give you some clue of how the ticket might proceed, this is not a definitive way to find out if your case will actually proceed as an infraction or a misdemeanor.  The reason the ticket doesn’t tell you the complete answer is because this only tells us the charge that you were cited for.  So we can tell if the officer CITED you for a misdemeanor or an infraction, but this doesn’t necessarily control what you will be charged with when you get to court.

The prosecuting attorney for that jurisdiction (usually a District Attorney or local City Attorney) will have the authority to either allow the case to proceed as a simple traffic ticket or to file a criminal complaint charging the violation of VC 12500 as a misdemeanor.   If a criminal complaint is filed, you aren’t necessarily stuck with the misdemeanor because it may be possible to negotiate a reduction with the prosecutor, or a motion can be made to have the Judge make the reduction.   You also have the option of litigating the charge and forcing the state to prove that you committed the violation beyond a reasonable doubt.

The inconsistency in how this issue is treated in the California court system is amazing to me.   The same offense will result in one person paying a fine and another person going to jail or having a criminal history.  How can that be fair?  The way these cases are handled from County to County or even from courtroom to courtroom is completely inconsistent.   In parts of Los Angeles that are within the jurisdiction of the LA City Attorney, these cases are routinely prosecuted as infractions regardless of what it says on the ticket.   But you have to be careful because there are still many parts of Los Angeles that will proceed on this case as a misdemeanor.  In other counties, a criminal complaint in usually filed and the case proceeds a s misdemeanor.   Still others, such as Orange County will use a hybrid system where the ticket will proceed in the traffic system (so no criminal complaint is usually filed) but the traffic court will still treat the offense as a misdemeanor.  So if you walk in and plead guilty with all the other tickets being heard that day, you just created a criminal conviction for yourself.

If you are facing a charge of VC 12500, the safest play would be to consult with a qualified and experienced California Traffic Lawyer to make sure that you get the best possible result and avoid a misdemeanor conviction at all costs.  If you can’t afford to hire a private attorney, you should always be sure to ask the Judge specifically if your charge is a misdemeanor or an infraction before entering a plea.  If the charge is proceeding as a misdemeanor and you can not afford a lawyer, you have a right to ask the court to appoint a public defender to assist you with your case.

Can I drive in California with a license from another state?

Vehicle Code Section 12500 would seem to say you can’t.   And many California police officers are trained to issue citations to anyone driving in California without a California license.   This however is NOT the law.  California law actually allows you to drive in California with a valid license from another State.    A common answer I hear from clients on this issue is “the officer told me that I’m in violation of VC 12500 because I have been in California for more than 30 days so my license from my home state is no longer valid in California”.   This couldn’t be farther from the truth.   This mistaken application of the law comes from a misunderstanding of a portion of the Vehicle Code that requires you to visit the California DMV and obtain a California license within 30 days of becoming a California resident.   The problem is that you don’t magically become a resident the second you arrive in California.   Residency is a tricky issue.  You can be in California for 6 years without becoming a resident, or you can be here for 6 minutes and be one.   The legal concept of residency is based largely on your intent, meaning do you intend California to be your permanent home?  If so, you need a California license.  If you are just visiting, even if it’s a long visit, your license from your home state is just fine.

Vehicle Code Section 12505 attempts to clarify further, but if you read this legalese you will quickly see that the issue can obviously be argued either way

§ 12505. Residency Requirements for Driving with a License from another State

(a)(1) For purposes of this division only and notwithstanding Section 516, residency shall be determined as a person’s state of domicile. “State of domicile” means the state where a person has his or her true, fixed, and permanent home and principal residence and to which he or she has manifested the intention of returning whenever he or she is absent.

Prima facie evidence of residency for driver’s licensing purposes includes, but is not limited to, the following:

(A) Address where registered to vote.

(B) Payment of resident tuition at a public institution of higher education.

(C) Filing a homeowner’s property tax exemption.

(D) Other acts, occurrences, or events that indicate presence in the state is more than temporary or transient.

(2) California residency is required of a person in order to be issued a commercial driver’s license under this code.

(b) The presumption of residency in this state may be rebutted by satisfactory evidence that the licensee’s primary residence is in another state.

“Resident” means any person who manifests an intent to live or be located in this state on more than a temporary or transient basis. Presence in the state for six months or more in any 12-month period gives rise to a rebuttable presumption of residency.”

Can I drive in California with a license from another country?

The answer to this question is exactly the same as driving with a license from another state.   Most cops will tell you that your license from another county is worthless and right you up with a citation for VC 12500.  But the law is actually completely different.   The law allows you to drive in California on a license from another country as long as you are a resident of the other country.   And again, remember there is no magic number of days to determine residency.  So be prepared to make a showing that you are still a resident of the country who issued your valid license.  You may show for example voter registration, tax returns, property tax, bank statements, utility bills, a passport or tourist card, the potential list of evidence is endless.   Just remember, you aren’t stuck just because the officer wrote you a ticket.   You have every right to have an attorney defend your case, or you can represent yourself, or you can request the court to appoint counsel if you are charged with a misdemeanor and you are indigent.

If you have questions about your citation for VC 12500 feel free to give me a call at 800-797-8406 or just send me an email to attorneygallagher@gmail.com  I would be happy to help you sort through the mess.

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