Breaking it down
Getting caught driving in Virginia without a valid driver’s license may be the result of a simple oversight, but it can result in jail time, fines, and a permanent criminal record. Virginia treats driving without a license as a misdemeanor crime.
- A first offense can result in up to six months in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine
- Subsequent offenses can result in up to a year in jail and a maximum $2,500 fine
- New residents must get a Virginia license within 60 days
- You may be able to fight the charge if you had a valid license from another state or country when you were pulled over
Moving to a new state can be both thrilling and stressful. There’s unpacking, settling into a new house or apartment, starting a new job or classes at school. Sometimes in the whirlwind of all that change, things can slip through the cracks. If changing your driver’s license is one of those things, you might end up facing a misdemeanor criminal charge and possible jail time and fines.
Virginia Code §46.2-300 says that people who operate motor vehicles on Virginia’s streets, roads, or highways have to have valid Virginia driver’s licenses. The law makes exceptions for
- People driving road rollers, tractors, or farm equipment (§46.2-303)
- People in the military driving official vehicles (§46.2-305)
- Active duty military personnel, their spouses, and children over 16 who have valid licenses from their home state or country (§46.2-306)
- Visiting non-residents who have valid licenses issued by their home state or country (§46.2-307)
The law also makes a temporary 60-day exception for new residents who have valid licenses from their home state or country, but after that they’re expected to get a Virginia license and their previous license from another state or country is no longer considered valid.
If you’re a new resident who got stopped by police after that 60-day period and you haven’t obtained a Virginia license, you can be charged with the misdemeanor crime of driving without a valid license even if you still have your license from Maryland, North Carolina or some other state.
This is a different crime than driving with a suspended or revoked license, since in that case the person once had a Virginia license that is no longer valid.
A first offense of driving without a license is a mid-level misdemeanor in Virginia with a penalty of up to six months in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine. Judges often do not impose the full sentence, and an experienced traffic lawyer can help make an argument why sentencing should be more lenient.
Starting with the second offense, the charge becomes a more serious misdemeanor with up to a year in jail and $2,500 maximum fine.
A judge may suspend your driving privileges for up to 90 days starting with the first offense, meaning you wouldn’t be allowed to drive during that period.
Another consequence of driving without a license is that your car can be impounded until you get a valid license or for three days, whichever is less. You’ll be responsible for paying the impound and storage fees before you can get your vehicle back.
If you were charged with driving without a license because you were in a crash, you also may be billed for emergency response expenses from the police department, fire department, or other rescue or emergency services that responded to the crash.
To convict you of driving without a license, a prosecutor has to prove three things beyond a reasonable doubt:
- You operated a motor vehicle
- On a Virginia highway
- You didn’t have a valid driver’s license
There may be some argument that the vehicle you were in wasn’t legally defined as a “motor vehicle” under Virginia law or that you weren’t on something considered a highway. An experienced traffic lawyer will know the details of those definitions.
You also may have a defense if you were just sitting in the vehicle and it wasn’t moving, e.g., no “operating.”
Another option is to show that you had a valid foreign license at the time you were pulled over, or that you’d been a Virginia resident for less than 60 days. When you became a legal resident of the state can depend on details, and an attorney can help you determine when your residency actually started.
Caught driving without a license in Virginia?
If you’ve been charged with driving without a license in Virginia, the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Copenhaver, Ellett & Derrico can help evaluate the details of your case and your options. For an appointment at our Roanoke office, call us at (540) 343-9349.