Generally, every state requires a driver's license to lawfully operate a standard motor vehicle. And, in all states, there are numerous reasons motorists can lose their driving privileges through license "revocation" or "suspension." Drivers who get behind the wheel after having their license revoked or suspended typically face criminal charges and severe penalties. Unlicensed driving (meaning the driver never had a license) is illegal, but typically not as serious of a violation as driving during a suspension or revocation.
Licensing laws vary by state and so do the consequences of unlicensed driving. However, state laws follow some general trends.
Generally, every person who operates a motor vehicle must carry a valid license while driving. Some of the most common exceptions are for military personnel, paving equipment operators, and farm equipment operators (near the farm). Also, drivers with a valid license from another state or country can generally drive in a state without any problem (though new residents are required to get an in-state license within a certain period of time).
Unlicensed driving comes in several varieties, which generally carry different penalties
Driving without a valid. Driving without ever having been issued a license is typically a misdemeanor or an infraction, depending on the state. An infraction normally carries only a fine of around $25 to $200, and some states will also assess demerit points to the driver's record. If the violation is considered a misdemeanor the fine may be up to $1,000 and include the possibility of jail time.
Expired licenses. Persons driving with an expired license can typically be convicted of only a traffic infraction. Fines for driving on an expired license normally range from about $25 to $250. And some judges might be willing to reduce the fine or dismiss the charge altogether if the driver obtains a valid license before the court date.
License not in possession. A driver who was licensed but not carrying the license while driving will normally receive a citation that's similar to a fix-it ticket. Although the driver might still need to pay a modest fine or fee, the judge will generally dismiss the ticket for drivers who present a then-valid license in court. In some states, drivers can resolve the ticket by providing a then-valid license at the police station.
Driving is a privilege, not a right. So, each state has the authority to suspend or revoke a person's license to drive. There are multiple reasons that can lead to the loss of driving privileges, though they vary somewhat by state. Similarly, the penalties differ depending on state law.
Impaired driving. One of the most common reasons for losing driving privileges is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Impaired driving is a serious and dangerous violation; a conviction, or even an alcohol test refusal in violation of implied consent laws, will result in the loss of driving privileges for months to years.
Demerit points. Many states issue demerit points to drivers for traffic violation convictions. One or two points may be harmless, but multiple violations and excessive points will lead to driver's license suspension or revocation. Many states that do not have a demerit system still issue suspensions for drivers who habitually violate traffic laws.
Collision liability. A driver's license may also be revoked due to a vehicle collision. If a driver caused an accident and did not have insurance to cover the damage, the driver's license may be suspended until all damages and costs are fully reimbursed.
Drivers who are caught operating a vehicle in violation of a revocation or suspension will face severe penalties. Depending on the situation, a conviction can be a misdemeanor or felony and will normally carry fines, possible jail time, and extended license sanctions. While a first offense might result in a moderate fine and probation, repeat offenders can face thousands of dollars in fines, long suspension periods, and several months in jail.
For example, a Colorado driver will be suspended for acquiring nine demerit points. Driving in violation of the suspension will result in up to six months in jail and a maximum $500 in fines. But a Colorado driver who is caught driving during a DUI suspension will face 30 days to one year in jail and $500 to $1,000 in fines.