California has two primary criminal laws that punish people for driving a motor vehicle when they are not properly licensed. California Vehicle Code 12500 makes it a misdemeanor to drive without a valid driver’s license. California Vehicle Code 14601 makes it a misdemeanor to drive on a suspended license.
California Vehicle Code 12500 is a relatively straightforward statute. It makes it a crime to drive without a validly issued license. This most often applies to people who never obtained a drivers license in the first place, or who failed to renew their license upon expiration, or people who moved to California and failed to switch from a license issued in the previous state to a California drivers license.
Vehicle Code 14601, on the other hand, applies to someone who had a valid driver’s license but whose license got suspended. The reasons for the suspension could include a California DUI conviction, failure to pay traffic fines and DMV fees, or becoming a "negligent operator" accumulating too many points on one's driving record.
Vehicle Code 14601 cases can be more difficult for the prosecutor to prove. To be guilty of the crime, the driver must have knowledge that his license was suspended at the time of driving. Unless a judge, police officer or DMV official specifically advised him/her of the suspension, this "knowledge" element can be difficult to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt, anyhow). But though VC 14601 is a tougher crime for the state to substantiate, the penalties for California Vehicle Code 14601 are substantially greater.