Driving Motor Vehicles Without A Driver License

There is a sort-of common belief that the United States Constitution prevents a State from requiring people to obtain a driver license and criminalizing driving without a valid driver license. Reality is, that is not federal or state law.

On occasion, I receive correspondence from people who provide me “legal briefs” supposedly proving that the Constitution guarantees that people may travel without license from the State. There are (many) cases on point that rule that the States have authority under the Constitution to require people to obtain a license to drive a motor vehicle on the public highways. I do not address them here (but may provide the references later). However, I address a couple main cases that people use in belief that the Constitution guarantees them the right to drive a motor vehicle on the public highways without a license.

First, let’s look at Chicago Motor Coach v Chicago,169 NE 22.

Here are the basic facts and procedures: The Chicago, Ill., Municipal Code § 2761 (1922), declared it to be unlawful to operate motor busses as common carriers on any street in the city without first having obtained a license. The city threatened to arrest the employees. The bus company and the employees sought to enjoin the city, mayor, and superintendent of police from enforcing that ordinance and from interfering with the operation of the bus company’s business. The trial court sustained a demurrer to the bill and dismissed the case. On appeal, the court reversed and directed that the demurrer to the amended bill be overruled. It noted that the city was a creature of the state and had no power without legislative authority to legislate has it had and that authority had not been granted with respect to the operation of the bus company. Furthermore, the legislature had provided that the Illinois Commerce Commission had comprehensive power over the streets and regulation thereof.

This case had to do with City authority, not State authority, to license commercial driving a common carriers. Since the City did not have authority from State law to license “common carriers,” it could not do so. This is not the same as the State not being able to license driving motor vehicles on public highways. Just the opposite, the Court observed the State’s power to license such driving as follows.

The legislature may prohibit by general law the operation of automotive vehicles upon the public highways of the state and it may delegate to the cities in the state the power to prohibit such operation within the respective cities. It has not done either in this state.

Next, let’s look at Thompson v Smith, 154 SE 579.

Here are the basis facts and procedures: The chief of police had revoked the driver’s license after he had twice been convicted for speeding pursuant to the city ordinance, which authorized a revocation based on the opinion of the chief of police. The driver contended that the language in the ordinance that allowed revocation based on the opinion of the chief of police was void as a delegation of legislative power to an administrative officer. The permit could have been revoked for a felony conviction, violation of the prohibition law, or three violations of the traffic laws within any one year. The court held that the ordinance, to the extent it granted the chief of police to revoke a permit, was void because it delegated power essentially legislative to an administrative officer. The court found that an injunction was an appropriate remedy because neither a mandamus to compel restoration of the driver’s license or waiting until the driver was arrested was as complete and adequate as an injunction.

This case actually confirmed the power of the State to license driving motor vehicles on public highways, which the complainant did not question. He, rather, contested that the police chief could, through his mere opinion, revoke a license. The Court said,

The power of a city to control and regulate the use of its streets is a continuing power to be exercised as often and whenever the city may think proper. Washington, etc., Ry. Co. v. City Council of Alexandria, 98 Va. 344, 36 S.E. 385. The issuance and revocation of such permits by a city is merely a means of exercising the police power of the State delegated to the city to regulate the use of the public highways in the interest of the public safety and welfare. The Constitution of Virginia expressly provides that “the exercise of the police power of the State shall never be abridged.” (Constitution Virginia, section 159).

The Court stated that driving a car is a “common right” but is subject to State licensing. It said,

The exercise of such a common right the city may, under its police power, regulate in the interest of the public safety and welfare; but it may not arbitrarily or unreasonably prohibit or restrict it, nor may it permit one to exercise it and refuse to permit another of like qualifications, under like conditions and circumstances, to exercise it.

It stated that it may not deny one a permit to drive of like qualifications and under like conditions and circumstances.

After explaining the difference between “legislative” and “ministerial” roles, the Court said,

The ordinance here in question declares the policy of the law and fixes the legal principles which are to control the chief of police in granting a driving permit. The applicant must demonstrate his ability to safely and properly operate motor vehicles upon the streets of the city, and demonstrate that he knows the traffic laws of the State and the city, and shall be sixteen years of age or over. While the ordinance provides that no permit shall be issued to the applicant unless his examination by the chief of police shall disclose that he possesses such ability and knowledge ‘as in the judgment of the chief of police qualifies such person to receive such permit,’ the discretion here vested in the chief of police is essentially ministerial and not legislative.

The Court then concluded,

That portion of the ordinance here in question which authorizes the chief of police “to revoke the permit of any driver, who, in his opinion, becomes unfit to drive an automobile on the streets of the city,” fails to declare the policy of the law and fix the legal principles which are to control the discretion of the chief of police in the revocation of licenses in determining what constitutes unfitness to drive an automobile on the streets of the city; and is void because it delegates powers essentially legislative to an administrative officer.

Therefore, the Court only struck down the portion of the law that gave the police chief the discretion to revoke a driving permit based on his opinion and not fixed policy of law and legal principles. In reality, the Court confirmed the State’s power and under that, the City, to license driving and revoke it for non-arbitrary reasons.


State and federal cases are clear: the “right to travel” does not prevent the States from policing the safety of the public highways and that to do so, they may require people to obtain licenses to drive on public highways.

If you have been charged with driving without a valid driver license, you should not rely on these so-called “legal briefs” that are floating around on the internet as a basis for your defense. However, you may have a defense, depending on the facts of your case. In addition, there are other issues involving the issuance of driver license, such as requiring people to provide a social security number to obtain the license.

Contact Tim Baldwin to learn what your options are in your driver license issues.

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