Driver's Licenses for Undocumented Immigrants?A new California law took effect January 1, 2013 giving certain undocumented residents the right to obtain a driver’s license. Signed by Governor Brown late last year, AB 2189 authorizes the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue licenses to individuals who qualify for the new Federal work-visa program developed by President Obama. Specifically, the bill directs the DMV to accept as proof of residency, whatever documentation the Federal Government provides in connection with the Deferred Action immigration program.
Many unlicensed drivers still on the roadBut, California lawmakers aren't finished with the issue just yet. While AB 2189 authorizes licenses for a large number of undocumented residents, some sources estimate that as many as one million unlicensed drivers still populate California roadways, most as a result of their undocumented status. A new bill, AB 60, seeks to rectify this situation by authorizing driver’s licenses for most of the remaining undocumented residents, however some legislators oppose the move and the bill’s future is uncertain. So, where does that leave average drivers?
Steep penaltiesDriving without a license on a public road in California is against the law. California Vehicle Code section 12500 requires that California drivers possess a valid license issued by the state in which they live and authorizing their use of the class of vehicle they are operating. While you can only be criminally convicted of a misdemeanor for violation of this law, the practical consequences can be severe; especially if you are involved in an accident while driving without a license. First, even misdemeanor convictions will appear on your criminal record, potentially haunting your future efforts to get a job, obtain affordable car-insurance, or apply for certain benefits. Second, California’s financial responsibility laws may tangentially affect your situation.
Under California Civil Code sections 3333.3 and 3333.4, individuals who are injured in an incident involving the operation or use of a motor vehicle, may be precluded from suing for certain types of damages (notably pain and suffering) if they are not properly insured; even if someone else is clearly at fault. Because most insurance companies will not issue a policy to a person who does not have a valid driver’s license, unlicensed drivers who are involved in a car accident are likely to find themselves unable to collect much money from the other party. In other words, if you don't have a driver’s license, you probably can't get insurance, which means you probably can’t get paid by the guy who hits you in a car accident.
Get a licenseWhile there are a number of nuances to this law, and courts are continually interpreting its wording, the warning should be clear. Driving without a license is a very bad idea. If you are undocumented, and do not qualify for the newly expanded licensing program, the best approach is to avoid driving. Take public transportation or find a way to carpool whenever possible. For those of you who are eligible, take the time to get your license and maintain proper insurance on your vehicle. The costs of failing to comply with these laws far outweigh the risks.
That being said, if you are charged with driving without a license, or if you are injured while operating an uninsured vehicle, check with an attorney immediately to see what your options are. There is no substitute for good legal advice in every situation.