In Florida, it is a crime for a person to drive a motor vehicle if his/her license is suspended and he/she knows it is suspended. That last part is important because it is only a civil traffic infraction to drive with a suspended license in Florida if the driver is not aware of the license suspension. In many cases, for first time violators, whether a person gets the civil citation or a criminal charge for driving with a suspended license will depend on how the officer who pulls the driver over feels.
If the state believes the driver knew he/she had a suspended license and drove anyway, the state will charge the driver with a crime. Normally, it is a misdemeanor crime. However, if a person has two or more prior convictions for driving with a suspended license, the state can charge the person with a third degree felony. For the first or second violation, the penalties are usually minimal, especially if the defendant can obtain a good license while the case is pending. Additionally, the state will often charge a person with the misdemeanor crime even if he/she has a few prior convictions because most prosecutors understand there are much more serious cases that should occupy their time. However, once a person gets several of these convictions or once the person has been charged with a felony, jail time and/or future felony charges are a real possibility for subsequent violations.
A person’s driver’s license can be suspended for a few reasons, including a DUI, a marijuana possession conviction, unpaid tickets, too many points on the driving record, auto insurance issues and other reasons. Judges often consider driving on a suspended license more or less serious, and more or less deserving of jail time, depending on the reason for the underlying suspension. For instance, many judges in Florida will generally order jail time if a person is driving while his/her license is suspended due to a recent DUI conviction. On the other hand, judges usually are not too concerned about suspensions due to unpaid tickets, especially if they are paid in a reasonable period of time.
An interesting scenario that occurs with these and similar cases happens when people do not obtain licenses at all. A driving with a suspended license charge results after a person obtains a valid license, has it suspended for some reason but drives anyway. There are plenty of people driving who never obtained a driver’s license in the first place. If they get caught driving, they can also be charged with a crime, but it is a less serious crime and one that cannot be charged as a felony.
In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, the police stopped a person who was driving without a license and had been convicted of that crime several times in the past. The state attempted to charge him with a felony charge- driving with a suspended license as a habitual traffic offender. This is a different way to be charged with a felony for driving with a suspended license. A person can be a habitual traffic offender if his/her license has been suspended for specific reasons listed in the statute. Essentially, if a person has three or more major violations on his/her record, he/she can be a habitual traffic offender. If that person is caught driving while his/her license is suspended as a habitual traffic offender, it can be a felony charge even if it is the first driving with a suspended license violation. Examples of major driving violations are: a DUI, a felony conviction involving a vehicle, a driving with a suspended license conviction, a hit and run conviction involving injury or death and other violations.
In this case, the state improperly charged the defendant with the felony charge of driving with a suspended license as a habitual traffic offender. The defendant had multiple convictions for driving without a license, but since he never obtained a license, his license had never been suspended. The law generally does not provide for a felony driving with a suspended license charge for people who have never had a license to suspend. This is one of those quirks in the law where a person who actually took the time and paid the money to get a driver’s license can be exposed to more serious criminal penalties than an equally bad or irresponsible driver who never bothered to get a driver’s license or is not eligible for a driver’s license.