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Driving Without a License (A True Story From 2 Michigan Courts)

Home Blog DUI Driving Without a License (A True Story From 2 Michigan Courts)

Key Takeaways

  • All traffic misdemeanors stay on your driving record forever.
  • Any previous DWLS/DWLR conviction can be counted as a “prior” offense, no matter how long ago it occurred.
  • If a DWLS/DWLR is the consequence of a prior DUI (or multiple DUIs), it makes things more complicated than if it is the result of anything else.
  • Because the local (Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne) county jails are full of more serious offenders, DWLS/DWLR cases are not given priority for incarceration.
  • Other, less populous counties often have jail space to spare and think differently about operating a motor vehicle without driving privileges.
  • Beyond staying out of jail, a key goal in all DWLS/DWLR cases is to avoid having the person’s license suspended or revoked further.
  • If anything does go on a person’s driving record, it will automatically extend an existing suspension or revocation, and kill any chance to file a driver’s license restoration appeal.
  • The objective, therefore, is to avoid a conviction and make sure nothing gets reported on the person’s driving record, or, if not that, then at least minimizing what does get abstracted.
  • Don’t drive without a license, but if you do, at least stay in the Greater-Detroit area.

As practicing criminal defense lawyers who concentrate in DUI and driver’s license restoration cases, my team and I spend all our time in the Greater-Detroit area courts of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and the surrounding counties. A key part of that is handling loads of DWLR (Driving With License Revoked) and DWLS (Driving With License Suspended) cases.

As we’ll see, this area of the law is very much related to the larger driver’s license restoration process. To begin our review here, note that a suspended license charge and a revoked license charge are essentially identical, and covered under the very same law (operating vehicle if license, registration certificate or vehicle group designation suspended, revoked, or denied). We’ll examine the penalties in the next section below.

To help explain, we’re going to look at an interesting and somewhat recent pair of DWLR cases our law firm handled for a client, one local, and the other in a city outside the Greater-Detroit (hereafter referred to as the “distant court”). Our experience there reinforces the reason our law firm generally restricts the criminal and DUI part of our practice to the Metro-Detroit area.

In the interests of diplomacy, I won’t say where this “distant court” is located, other than to point out that it was NOT in the Greater-Detroit area outlined above.

Our Client’s History as an Unlicensed Driver

police office with clipboard standing near open window on car

Our client hired us to handle two Driving While License Suspended, Revoked or Denied (DWLR) second-offense cases: one here, in Metro-Detroit, and the other in that “distant court” mentioned above. His last DWLS/DWLR conviction occurred more than 10 years before he hired us. In total, he had four prior DWLS/DWLR convictions.

Those occurred because his Michigan driver’s license had been revoked due to several prior DUI convictions, the last of which occurred about ten years before the arrest in this case. Before these DWLR cases, our client was actually eligible, time-wise, to file a formal driver’s license restoration appeal.

About nine years earlier, after his last DUI, our client left Michigan and obtained a license from his new state. To be clear, that could not happen currently because all 50 states and the District of Columbia now use the National Driving Register.

Now, any suspension, revocation or hold in one state will prevent a person from getting a license in any other state.

About 5 years before his most recent arrest for DWLR in the “distant court,” our client had come back to Michigan to visit family. He wasn’t here long before getting pulled over in a local, Metro-Detroit city, and because his Michigan license was revoked (even though he had one from another state), he was charged with DWLS/DWLR. 2nd offense.

He then returned home without taking care of this Michigan matter and all but forgot about it — until he came back a second time and got arrested for DWLS/DWLR again, this time in the jurisdiction of that “distant court.”

When his LEIN (Law Enforcement Investigation Network) record was run, it came up that he had an outstanding bench warrant for his failure to take care of the older DWLS/DWLR case pending in the Greater-Detroit area. This meant he was then facing 2 cases – the first and older, local one, and the second in the “distant court.”

Fighting For Reduced Jail Time

As the saying goes, “Timing is everything.” Sometimes, however, the wheels of justice grind away on their own schedule, and that’s what happened here. The timing didn’t work out because it would have been preferable for his local case to be handled first, since we knew we could work that one out very favorably.

Unfortunately, the case in the “distant court” came before the one in the local court.

Thus, we had to travel out there and work a deal with the local prosecutor there before handling the local case. To be fair, he seemed understanding about our client’s situation.

We pointed out to the prosecutor that the driving record made clear it had been over ten years since our client was last convicted of any traffic offense. However, he would not budge and allow our client to plead to a “non-reporting” offense. Instead, that prosecutor would only agree to reduce the charge from a second-offense DWLR to a first-offense DWLR.

The potential penalties for a 2nd offense are much more severe, so that was definitely a good break. That’s clear enough just by looking at the key differences between a first offense and second offense charge under Michigan’s motor vehicle code:

  • 1st offense DWLS/DWLR –
    • Imprisonment for not more than 93 days, and/or
    • A fine of not more than $500.
    • Unless the vehicle was stolen or used with the permission of a person who did not knowingly permit an unlicensed driver to operate the vehicle, the registration plates of the vehicle shall be canceled by the secretary of state on notification by a peace officer.
  • 2nd offense DWLS/DWLR –
    • Imprisonment for not more than 1 year and/or
    • A fine of not more than $1000.
    • Unless the vehicle was stolen, the registration plates of the vehicle shall be canceled by the secretary of state on notification by a peace officer.

We Never Give Up

This prosecutor in the “distant court” was tough. Right from the beginning, he didn’t want to offer our client any kind of deal. He was very reluctant to even go as far as we got him to go (dropping a 2nd offense to a 1st offense), because our client had numerous criminal convictions and traffic offenses on his record, including multiple DUI’s.

While we knew this to be true, it has also been our experience (at least in the Greater-Detroit area) that very old convictions, like the kind our client had, are usually NOT used so strongly against someone who has remained trouble-free for such a long time.

To make matters worse, the prosecutor pointed out (and we later confirmed) that the judge to which our client’s case had been assigned was known as being VERY tough in DWLS/DWLR cases, especially those where the original suspension or revocation arose from DUI convictions. He further noted that this judge would often sentence people to the maximum jail term the law allows in such cases.


This was a very different situation than what we see in the local Greater Detroit area courts. Here, keeping the client out of jail in a DWLS/DWLR case is something we do, quite literally, all the time.

Indeed, in most cases of driving without a license, that’s so easy to accomplish that we focus most of our effort on keeping any kind of conviction from going on his or her driving record so that he or she can get back on the road legally sooner, rather than later.

Never willing to just give up, we continued to beg and argue with the “distant court” prosecutor. We simply refused to cave in until he relented even more. We wore him down until he became a little more helpful. He said that the best thing he could do in addition to reducing the charge from a 2nd offense to a 1st offense was to recommend a “cap” of 30 days in jail as the maximum for the client.

Yikes again!

Why We Always Fight For Our Clients

It’s important, for context, to understand that a Judge is never bound to follow a prosecutor’s recommended jail cap. However, at least, here, in the local, Greater-Detroit area, most will at least seriously consider and are quite likely to follow it.

Normally, in a local case like this, one shouldn’t expect much trouble in getting the prosecutor to agree to a recommendation of “no jail” or “no objection to probation only” and having the court go along, if that was even necessary.

Remember, our client lived out of state. He had a job, and getting locked up in jail, even for 30 days, would have caused a major disruption in his life. Thus, we set out to convince the Judge that even the 30-day jail cap was simply too much punishment, especially in this case.

Because of our determination, we were ultimately able to persuade the Judge to agree, and our client didn’t have to do any jail time.

Instead, he went home on a term of non-reporting probation.

Somewhat ironically, yet not surprisingly, we were able to negotiate a non-reportable offense and get a short, probationary sentence in the local court, even though the arrest and charge in that case came after the one in the “distant court,” and marked our client’s 6th DWLS/DWLR case overall.

That was a great result, especially when we remember that having a DUI record always makes things more complicated.

The Two Ways Michigan Courts Treat Suspended and Revoked Licenses

judge listening to two lawyers argue with clipboards in hand

All DWLS/DWLR cases fall into one of two categories:

  • Those wherein the suspension or revocation is the result of a DUI conviction or multiple DUI convictions, and
  • EVERYTHING ELSE, meaning those wherein the suspension or revocation is the result of something else not related to drunk driving.

It’s always better to be in the “everything else” category. The simple fact is that anyone who lost their license because of a DUI (or multiple DUIs) and has been charged with a DWLS/DWLR can expect to be perceived differently than a person whose license suspension is the result of something like an unpaid traffic ticket.

Although being suspended or revoked for drunk driving doesn’t make a DWLS or DWLR charge a more serious offense, it can, sometimes, be treated that way.

We must ensure that doesn’t happen.

Unfortunately, in the case discussed above, our client’s license charges were the result of several prior driving under the influence (DUI) convictions, and several prior DWLR convictions, as well.

Even so, it’s only reasonable to expect that when those convictions are quite old and the person has remained out of trouble for a long time, he or she will be treated leniently.

In the “distant court,” not only didn’t it seem to matter how long our client had been trouble-free, but the prosecutor still held firm to the fact that this all started because he lost his license for multiple DUIs.

Sure, he got a break, and apparently a pretty good break by the local standards in that “distant court.” However, in the Greater-Detroit area, it would all but be expected that the charge could be reduced to something like “allowing an unlicensed driver to drive” (a non-reportable offense), or at least “no operator’s license on person” (“no ops).

And in pretty much every local, Metro Detroit-area court, our client would have almost certainly been treated more leniently than he was in the “distant court.”

How a DWLS or DWLR Charge Can Keep You From Getting Your License Back

Under Michigan law, if a person whose license has been suspended or revoked is convicted of ANY driving infraction or traffic violation (or even if the Michigan Secretary of State otherwise determines that he or she operated a motor vehicle), then it must add on what’s called a “mandatory additional” suspension or revocation.

Here’s the language of the written law, explained in plain English afterward:

  • On receiving a record of a person’s conviction or civil infraction determination for the unlawful operation of a motor vehicle or a moving violation reportable under section 732 while the person’s operator’s or chauffeur’s license is suspended or revoked, the secretary of state immediately shall impose an additional like period of suspension or revocation. This subsection applies only if the violation occurs during a suspension of definite length or if the violation occurs before the person is approved for a license following a revocation.
  • On receiving a record of a person’s conviction or civil infraction determination for the unlawful operation of a motor vehicle or a moving violation reportable under section 732 while the person’s operator’s or chauffeur’s license is indefinitely suspended or whose application for a license has been denied, the secretary of state immediately shall impose a 30-day period of suspension or denial.

The upshot of all this is serious. If someone whose license has been revoked (revocations are for either 1 or 5 years) gets caught driving, he or she will be revoked all over again for ANOTHER 1 or 5 years. This is the “additional like period” reference in the law.

That will totally prevent a person whose driving privileges have been revoked from even filing a driver’s license restoration appeal for at least another 1 or 5 years.

It will also sideline anyone whose license has been suspended from getting his or her license back sooner, rather than later. These penalties must be avoided at all costs, and my team and I do it all the time.

The workaround is for us to prevent ANYTHING from going on your driving record. By doing that, we avoid all the “mandatory additional” penalties.

Not surprisingly, we have found that this is much easier to do in the Greater Detroit area than in less populated areas. That’s another reason we limit our criminal and DUI practice to Metropolitan Detroit.

Remember, we are a genuine driver’s license restoration law firm. We handle about 200 license appeal matters every year and GUARANTEE to win every driver’s license restoration and out-of-state clearance appeal case we take.

A key difference between our license reinstatement practice is that it’s state-wide. Every part of these cases can be handled remotely. In fact, all Secretary of State license appeal hearings held before the OHAO (Office of Hearings and Administrative Oversight, the division that handles all restoration and clearance appeal cases) are done remotely, using the Microsoft Teams platform.

By contrast, we generally limit our criminal (DUI and DWLS/DWLR) practice to the Greater Detroit area because we regularly attend the same local courts and know how to get things done. We also know that such matters tend to be treated more leniently in the larger metropolitan areas. Like it or not, that’s just the way things work.

Between these complimentary practice areas, my team and I have an unsurpassed working knowledge of the traffic and driver’s license laws.

Learn From the Mistakes of Others

If you are facing a DWLS (suspended) or DWLR (revoked) license charge, don’t wait to take the right steps to protect yourself. You need to be able to drive legally as soon as possible.

Our firm concentrates in driving offenses and license restorations. If you have been charged with DWLS or DWLR anywhere in the Greater-Detroit area (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, or one of the surrounding counties), make sure you give our office a ring.

Remember, our driver’s license restoration practice is state-wide, so we can help with that no matter where you live.

We offer free consultations, done over the phone, right when you call. Everything is confidential. My team and I are very friendly people who will be glad to answer all your questions and explain things. We always suggest you call around, compare firms, and invite you to call us back, even if to compare notes with anything some other lawyer has said.

In all cases, we offer both in-person or virtual appointments, so you can choose whichever is most convenient.

We can be reached directly, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. at either 248-986-9700 or 586-465-1980.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Driving Without a License a Misdemeanor or Felony in Michigan?

Driving without a license (meaning DWLS or DWLR) is always a misdemeanor, UNLESS the unlicensed driver causes an accident that results in injury to another that leaves the person with a serious impairment of bodily function, or causes a death.

What if You Are in a Car Accident With a Suspended License or Revoked License?

If you are in an accident with a suspended or revoked license, you will almost certainly be charged with misdemeanor DWLS or DWLR (depending on whether your license was suspended or revoked), along with any other traffic offense you may have committed – assuming nobody was hurt or killed as a result.

  • If someone is injured as a result, then the suspended/revoked driver can be charged with a felony and face up to 5 years in prison and a fine of $1000 to $5000.
  • If someone is killed as a result, then the suspended/revoked driver can be charged with a felony and face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $2500 to $15,000.
How Much Jail Time Can You Get For Driving Without a Valid Driver’s License in Michigan?

As noted in the various sections above, the penalties for DWLS/DWLR are as follows:

  • 1st offense – up to 90 days in jail.
  • 2nd offense – up to 1 year in jail.
  • DWLS/DWLR causing injury – up to 5 years in prison.
  • DWLS/DWLR causing death – up to 15 years in prison.