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What happens if you are pulled over without your license in California?

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Introduction to Traffic Stops in California

Traffic laws in California are designed to ensure safety and order on the roads. A pivotal aspect of these laws is the requirement for drivers to carry a valid driver’s license. Understanding how traffic stops work and the importance of carrying a license is crucial for every California driver.

What Happens During a Traffic Stop?

When you’re pulled over in California, the officer will typically approach your vehicle and ask for your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. This is a standard procedure meant to verify your identity and ensure the vehicle’s legality.

Scenario 1: With a Valid License

Presenting a valid license usually leads to a routine check. If there are no other issues, such as outstanding warrants or violations, you might just receive a warning or a ticket for the reason you were stopped.

Scenario 2: Without a License on Hand

If you are pulled over by the police and do not have your license, your best course of action is to calmly explain the situation to the officer and provide any identification that you do have, such as a passport. You may be given a chance to present your license later or receive a citation to be resolved in court.

However, if you are unlucky the officer may choose to write you a citation, tow the vehicle, or even arrest you if you have a known history of driving without your license.

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Can you be arrested in California for driving without having your license on you?

In California, driving without a physical copy of your driver’s license on your person can result in legal consequences, but it usually does not lead to arrest unless there are other complicating factors. The law requires drivers to carry their license while driving and to show it to a law enforcement officer upon request. If you are stopped and do not have your license with you, you may receive a citation or a ticket.

However, this situation is typically considered a minor offense. If you can later prove to the court that you possessed a valid driver’s license at the time of the stop, the charge is often dismissed, sometimes with the payment of a small fee or administrative cost.

The likelihood of arrest is higher if there are additional issues involved, such as if you’re suspected of driving under the influence, driving without ever having been issued a license, or if there are outstanding warrants for your arrest. In these cases, not having your license on you can exacerbate the situation, but the arrest would be due to the more serious offense, not simply the lack of a physical license.

Understanding the Legal Requirements

In California, driving without having your driver’s license on your person is generally considered an infraction, which is a minor violation of the law. Infractions are the least severe type of offense and are typically punishable by a fine. They are not considered a criminal offense, so they do not usually result in jail time or a criminal record if that is the only infraction that occurs during a traffic stop.

When a driver is stopped and cannot present a valid driver’s license to law enforcement, they may be cited for this infraction. However, if the driver can later show proof in court that they possessed a valid license at the time of the stop, the charge can often be dismissed, sometimes subject to the payment of a nominal fee or administrative cost.

It’s important to note that while driving without your license on your person is an infraction, driving without ever having been issued a license or with a suspended or revoked license is a more serious offense and can carry heavier penalties, including potential criminal charges.

The Role of Digital Licenses

California is adapting to digital trends, including digital licenses. Recently, the state opened up its new mobile digital driver’s license phone application (also known as “mDL”) to 1.5 million residents of the state. However, it is still illegal to present anything other than a physical driver’s license to law enforcement at this time. At this time, mDL licenses are only legally accepted at certain airports and retail locations in the Sacramento, California area.

California residents are encouraged to stay up to date on the growing acceptance of digital licenses, but for the time being it seems physical licenses are here to stay for at least a few more years.

Dealing with Lost or Stolen Licenses

If your driver’s license is lost or stolen in California, you should take the following steps:

  • Report to Law Enforcement (Optional but Advised): If you believe your license was stolen, it’s advisable to report it to the police. This can help protect you against identity theft.
  • Apply for a Replacement License: You need to contact the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to apply for a replacement license. This can typically be done online, by mail, or in person at a DMV office.
    • Online: If you’re eligible, the fastest way is often to apply for a replacement driver’s license online through the California DMV website.
    • By Mail or In Person: If you’re not eligible to apply online or prefer another method, you can apply by mail or in person. You’ll need to complete the appropriate form (DL 44 for driver’s licenses), which is available at DMV offices.
  • Pay the Replacement Fee: There will be a fee for replacing your lost or stolen license. The amount is subject to change, so check the current fee on the DMV website or at a DMV office.
  • Provide Identification: When applying for a replacement, you’ll need to provide identification. The DMV website lists the types of identification that are acceptable.
  • Receive a Temporary License (If Applying in Person): If you apply in person, you may receive a temporary paper license to use until your new card arrives. This temporary license is usually valid for 90 days.
  • Wait for Your New License: After applying, your new license will be mailed to you. It can take several weeks to arrive, so plan accordingly.

Remember to keep your temporary license with you when driving, as you are required to have a license in your possession. Also, monitor your credit reports and bank statements if you suspect identity theft. If you see any unusual activity, report it to the relevant authorities and financial institutions immediately.

Expired Licenses and Traffic Stops

If you are pulled over by police in California and you have an expired driver’s license, you should take the following steps:

  • Stay Calm and Cooperative: When the officer approaches, remain calm and polite. It’s important to cooperate and communicate respectfully.
  • Inform the Officer: Inform the officer that your license is expired. Honesty is important, as they will find out when they check your license anyway.
  • Provide Requested Documents: Give the officer any other requested documents, such as your vehicle registration and proof of insurance.
  • Understand the Consequences: Driving with an expired license in California can result in a citation or a fine. The severity of the penalty may depend on how long your license has been expired for and your driving record.
  • Follow Instructions: Follow any instructions given by the officer. If you are issued a citation, you should take note of any court dates or fines.
  • Renew Your License: As soon as possible, take steps to renew your expired license. You can often do this online, by mail, or in person at a California DMV office. If your license has been expired for a long time, you may need to retake the written and/or driving tests.
  • Handle the Citation: If you are cited for driving with an expired license, handle it promptly. You may be required to pay a fine or appear in court. If you renew your license before your court date and show proof to the court, they may reduce or dismiss the charge, though this is not guaranteed.

Remember, driving with an expired license is a violation of the law, and the best way to avoid such situations is to renew your license before it expires. Keeping track of the expiration date and understanding the renewal process can help prevent these issues.

Role of Insurance and Registration

Having valid insurance and registration is as crucial as a valid license. Failure to present these can result in additional penalties.

Tips for a Smooth Traffic Stop Experience

Remain calm, be polite, and follow the officer’s instructions. Know your rights but also understand the importance of cooperation.

Seeking Legal Assistance

In complex situations, or if you feel your rights have been violated, seeking legal assistance can be beneficial. There are resources available for legal advice and representation in the state of California that can help you when your rights have been violated.

Are there any special rules for new drivers during traffic stops?

New drivers, especially those with provisional licenses, should be aware of their specific restrictions and comply with them to avoid additional penalties.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.