The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "The Law Q&A," runs in the Champaign News Gazette.
Do I have to carry my drivers license when I’m driving? If I’ve lost it, or just don’t have it with me, can I get ticketed? I have a license, but keep losing it.
You can be ticketed for not producing a license. But you can beat the ticket, and can avoid being convicted, if you prove you had a valid license when ticketed.
Two different laws are involved. The most important one promotes safety by requiring you to have a valid license whenever you operate a motor vehicle in Illinois. That means you’ve passed the written and behind-the-wheel tests, and have been issued a license that hasn’t expired, or been suspended or revoked.
That law says: “No person shall drive a motor vehicle unless he holds a valid license or permit.”
Depending on the details, operating a vehicle without a valid license is a Class A or B misdemeanor.
The less important law just requires you to produce your license if asked by the police. It proves you’re a legal driver, and provides the information necessary to enforce traffic laws.
This less important law begins by saying: “Every licensee or permittee shall have his drivers license or permit in his immediate possession at all times when operating a motor vehicle.” It then requires every licensee or permittee to “display such license or permit if it is in his possession upon demand made” by a police officer.
Violating this law is a petty offense. BUT, the law specifically says a driver can’t be convicted if they produce in court “satisfactory evidence that a drivers license was theretofor issued to him and was valid at the time of his arrest.”
So, you can be charged with the offense of not producing a license, but can’t be convicted if you prove you had a valid license when ticketed.
The insurance laws are basically identical. Having a valid license and insurance are what’s most important, not carrying the proof with you. Others states are similar.
Being unable to produce a license can also result in getting booked at the police station, to verify your information, instead of just a roadside ticket.
Note that the above laws only apply to drivers—not passengers. If you’re not driving, you’re never required to possess—much less display—any kind of ID or other document.
That means that if you’re a passenger in a car, or just walking down the street, you can legally refuse a request by the police for ID. The only exception is if you’re in a public place, and the police think you’re committing, or about to commit, a crime.
Then, Illinois law says police can ask your name and address. The U.S. Supreme Court says you only have to give your name. Their cases are clear that stopping crime suspects to obtain information isn’t an unconstitutional search and seizure.
Obviously, refusing to answer police questions won’t necessarily makes things go more smoothly. If you’re going to refuse, do it after talking with your own lawyer—not based on what you read in the newspaper.
Updated: August 2017