You may have heard a rumor somewhere in an out of the way cranny of the Interweb that in the United States you are not legally required to have a driver’s license to drive. Over the last few years, a number of articles have surfaced that claim there is no law requiring US citizens to possess a license to drive a motorized vehicle on public roadways.
In 2015, We Are Change published a list of statements by various judges, including the Supreme Court, which appeared to proclaim categorically that: Any American citizen when driving for non-commercial reasons, does not need any qualifying documentation or permission to exercise their right to freedom of movement while traveling on public roads. The claim evokes libertarian and constitutionalist sensibilities about natural law and the right to move freely. There may be something to it.
Here are some excerpts from a few of the most common rulings;
Thompson v.Smith, SE 579, 11 U.S. Jurisprudence, Constitutional Law, section 329, page 1135 “The right of Citizens to travel on public highways and transport his own property thereon, in the ordinary fashion of life, is a common right…
Caneisha Mills v. D.C. 2009 “Use of an automobile is a necessity to earning a living in modern life…
Campbell v. Walker, 78 Atl. 601, 2 Boyce (Del.) 41. “An automobile owner has the right to use the highway…
Wingfield v. Fielder 2d Ca. 3d 213 (1972). “If officials impose a vague statute, the citizen may act on the assumption that the statute is void.”
(Paul v. Virginia). “The right to travel from one State to another freely … is a right assertable against interference and governmental action…
There are reams and reams of these, and it’s difficult to say whether or not many of them have been taken out of context.
There seems to be a confusion over what the original meaning of the word, ‘drive’ is, however. As far as we can tell, the word has a history that far predates the invention of the automobile. The original meaning of, “to drive,” is to apply a forcible blow to an object in order to cause it to move. Originally, this was in referenceto the whipping of a team of carriage horses.
In those times, it was unusual for anyone other than the wealthy or a large corporation to own a horse-drawn carriage. Most often the ‘drivers’ of these carriages were tradesman who operated the vehicle as well as cared for and maintained the horses. While this task did require some skill, it was not an activity which called for government involvement and permission.
Over time, however, various laws were passed making the owners of the carriage liable for providing qualified drivers. That way, if the driver made a mistake, the driver’s employer could be held accountable for improperly vetting their driver.
So the law developed in such a way, and it is still on the books, that a license to drive is required only by those who are traveling on the job, in order to make money for their employer. In other words, according to the law- as it was written to govern the ability of professional drivers to operate horse-drawn carriages- says that you do not need a license to ‘drive’ if you are doing so while not engaging in commerce.So, can you or can you not safely throw away your driver’s license?
In short, you’d better not. While some judges will, and have, interpreted this law to mean that a person does not need a license- many more are likely to stick to the status quo.
The long and short of it is this; if you drive without a license you may be arrested, fined, jailed, and have your vehicle impounded, especially if you are practicing New York defensive driving via horse and carriage! You will have to go to court and if you choose to fight the charge, there is a remote possibility that you may win. It has happened. But you will have to mount a defense robust enough to convince a judge of something that is probably difficult for them to swallow.
Whether or not you intend to try to win the right to drive without a license, boning up on your New York Driver Resources and attaining a certificate from a certified defensive driving course at traffic school is a good way to display good faith to the judge.