Driving with a Suspended License
Driving with a suspended license in violation of Vehicle Code section 14601, 14601.1, 14601.2, and 14601.5 are incredibly common misdemeanor cases that flood the courthouse. These are not just infraction, fix-it ticket, or traffic court kind of cases. These are full-blown misdemeanors in criminal court. They come with criminal consequences. That means possible jail time and heavy fines. Prosecutors across California file these cases pretty aggressively. They're generally easy charges to prove and they motivate offenders to go deal with the DMV and take the steps necessary to get their license reinstated.
People get their licenses suspended for a number of reasons. For example, you had too many speeding violations, you failed to appear at traffic court, you're not paying child support, the list goes on and on. The most serious reason to have your license suspended is if you were arrested or convicted of a DUI. The penalties are far worse if that's the version of driving on a suspended license that you're accused of violating.
The bottom line is if your license has been suspended (for whatever reason), and you get pulled over and caught driving, you should expect a misdemeanor charge coming your way.
The majority of the cases in court are violations of Vehicle Code section 14601.1(a) -- suspensions of host of reasons, but NOT from DUI-related arrests. I'll talk about that next.
For your garden variety 14601.1(a) charge, at a basic level, the D.A. in court would simply need to be able to prove that:
(1) you drove a motor vehicle;
(2) your driving privilege had been previously suspended or revoked; and
(3) you had knowledge that your driving privilege had been suspended or revoked.
If the D.A. can prove those 3 elements, you can be convicted of this misdemeanor. The punishment is up to 180 days and hefty fines--typically in the range of $1,500 to $2,000, or potentially worse.
If this was your first offense, odds are you're not going to face any jail, just the hefty fine. But you'd still get a one-year misdemeanor court probation, which is informal and unsupervised, but nevertheless probation.
Where things get really bad is if you have prior convictions of this type of offense within the past five years. For one prior, the court is required to give you a 5-day jail sentence; for two or more priors, the judge must sentence you to at least 30 days.
Now when I say jail, there's two quick points to make. First, you'd only do half of that time for reasons I won't explain here. Second, you should be able to serve the "jail" time in the form of a work program under the supervision of your local Sheriff's Office rather than sitting behind bars in actual jail. Nevertheless, that's still a pretty big punishment for a seemingly minor crime.
What's the most effective defense?
Your best and often only real viable defense is to dispute whether you had knowledge of the suspension. Now if during the traffic stop you admitted to the officer that you knew your license was suspended, well then you've probably shot yourself in the foot. A lot of times, it's not clear what was said at the stop. The reports on these cases are often skimpy. Interactions are not always captured on dash cam or body camera evidence.
In many cases, the notice of the suspension was not necessarily served properly in the past. Certainly if the notice was simply mailed to an old address, it gets tricky for the D.A. to prove you received that mail and knew about the suspension.
There are other defenses that sometimes apply as well. For example, in some cases, officers happen upon a scene where they conclude you had been driving from the circumstances, but they didn't actually see you driving. At baseline, the D.A. will have to prove you were, in fact, driving. From time to time, that can be an effective defense depending on what the evidence shows.
These cases do not often go all the way to trial, but when they do, the D.A. conventionally will produce a certified DMV printout of your driving record, to show when the privilege was suspended or revoked. Your defense attorney can dispute that the printout should not be allowed on hearsay grounds, but a judge will likely allow it into evidence. A very prepared D.A. would subpoena a DMV employee to lay a foundation of the DMV printout. But, again, judges generally will admit into evidence the DMV printout even without a DMV employee subpoenaed. The point is it's best not to bank on keeping the DMV record excluded from evidence.
How do most of these cases resolve?
In general, these cases are negotiated and resolved in plea bargains well before trial. The best leverage in pretrial negotiations is to come to court with proof that you've reinstated your license. Most prosecutors will reduce the charges, or may even reduce the case to an infraction only, if you have your license now. So unless you have a legitimate legal defense to raise, like lack of proof you ever had knowledge of the suspension, then often the best strategy is to simply go try to get your license. That is, pay whatever fines you have and finally take care of it.
Vehicle Code section 14601.1(a). No person shall drive a motor vehicle when his or her driving privilege is suspended or revoked for any reason other than those listed in Section 14601, 14601.2, or 14601.5, if the person so driving has knowledge of the suspension or revocation. Knowledge shall be conclusively presumed if mailed notice has been given by the department to the person pursuant to Section 13106. The presumption established by this subdivision is a presumption affecting the burden of proof.