Felonies and Misdemeanors
The California Penal Code sets forth the law pertaining to most crimes California and also establishes California's criminal procedure. California law provides for three different classifications of crimes -- felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. (see Penal Code section 16) The difference between these types of crime essentially boils down to what the potential punishment is upon conviction.
The information below provides a broad, "top-level" view of how crimes in California are classified and what the potential consequences are if convicted. Please bear in mind that there are numerous exceptions to the rules described below. For more specific information about the type of charges your face, contact our office for a free consultation.
Felonies are the most serious types of crimes in California. A few examples of felonies include drug sales, assault with a deadly weapon (PC 245), burglary (PC 459), robbery (PC 211), rape (PC 261), and murder (PC 187).
Historically, felonies were simply defined as crimes that are punishable by commitment to state prison. However, with the enactment of the 2011 Realignment Legislation, there are certain felonies that are now punished with a "prison commitment" that is actually served in the county jail (see PC 1170(h)).
In addition to incarceration, other life altering consequences can flow from suffering a felony conviction. All felons lose their right to own and possess firearms and ammunition. Voting rights are revoked, at least temporarily and in some cases, permanently. Some felony convictions mandate lifetime registration as a sex offender (PC 290). For immigrants, many felony convictions make one deportable or removable from the United States. Even if none of these examples apply to you, the prospect of gaining employment greatly diminishes if you have a felony on your record.
Certain felonies are statutorily defined as either "serious" or "violent". Serious felonies are listed in Penal Code section 1192.7(c) and violent felonies are in Penal Code section 667.5(c). Any crime listed as either serious, or violent, or both, is considered a "strike" under California's Three Strikes Law. Strike convictions carry both short, and long-term consequences that are quite severe. If convicted of a strike offense, you are presumptively ineligible for probation (i.e., you must serve time in state prison). Also, if you have previously been convicted of a strike and are subsequently convicted of another felony, your sentence must be greater than what would ordinarily be imposed.
Misdemeanors carry possible incarceration in the county jail. Most misdemeanors carry a maximum of either six months or a year in custody. Common examples of misdemeanors include petty theft (PC 484/488), DUI (VC 23152(a), 23152(b)), domestic violence (PC 273.5, 243(e)), simple battery (PC 242), hit and run (VC 20002), vandalism (PC 594), and driving on a suspended license (VC 14601.1, 14601.2).
Many misdemeanors also carry mandatory minimum sentences and other provisions. For example, DUI convictions require the completion of DUI classes and license suspension. Domestic violence convictions require the completion of a 52-week domestic violence course.
Some crimes may be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Crimes that fall into this category are called "wobblers". The way to tell whether a crime is a wobbler or not is to look at the statute. A crime statute that only mentions punishment by imprisonment in the county jail is not a wobbler, it is always a misdemeanor. A crime statute that only mentions punishment by imprisonment in the state prison is not a wobbler, it is always a felony. However, if the statute says that the crimes can be punished by either county jail, state prison, or pursuant to subdivision (h) of section 1170 of the Penal Code, the crime is a wobbler.
- Misdemeanors that are not wobblers: DUI with three priors or less, petty theft, trespassing, vandalism with damages valued less than $400, simple battery, hit and run, simple possession of illegal drugs, resisting/delaying/obstructing an officer.
- Felonies that are not wobblers: robbery, rape, child molestation, carjacking, residential burglary (i.e., first degree), possession of illegal drugs for sale, transportation of illegal drugs, resisting an officer with force.
- Crimes that are wobblers: assault with a deadly weapon, DUI with 4 or more priors, commercial burglary (i.e., second degree), spousal abuse with injury, criminal threats, grand theft, evading a law enforcement officer.
The decision to charge a case as either a felony or a misdemeanor is made by the District Attorney. If you are charged with a wobbler, hiring an attorney as soon as possible is critical. Often we can contact the District Attorney prior to the case being charged and avoid the filing of felony charges.
The lowest level crime is an infraction. The most common example of an infraction is a speeding ticket. The basic definition of an infraction is a crime that is not punishable by incarceration in county jail or state prison. If convicted of an infraction, the penalty is simply a fine. Note that many infractions carry collateral consequences that can affect you beyond the annoyance of paying a fine, for example, points on your driver's license. We represent people charged with infractions, including speeding, red light violations, disturbing the peace. These types of cases are frequently dismissed with our assistance.
As a former public defender, I have extensive experience handling a wide variety of felonies and misdemeanors. Whether you are charged with a relatively simple misdemeanor or a complex felony, I have the experience to make a significant difference in your case.
To see proven results from prior cases, look here.
Whether you think you have a strong case or feel hopeless, contact me and let me use my experience to your advantage.