Classification of Crimes in California

Information about infractions, misdemeanors and felonies in California

California criminal law classifies violations into three categories: infractions, misdemeanors and felonies. Infractions are offenses that are illegal but are not typically considered serious and do not appear on a person’s criminal record. Driving without wearing a seatbelt, for example, is an infraction under California law. Infractions do not result in jail time. Misdemeanors are more serious offenses that can result in up to a year of jail time. A first-time offense of drunk driving, for example, is generally a misdemeanor. Felonies are the most serious criminal offenses and they can carry penalties of over a year in state prison, as well as substantial fines and other punishments. Selling illegal drugs is an example of a felony offense. Some violations, known as “wobblers,” can be charged either as infractions or misdemeanors, or as misdemeanors or felonies, at the prosecuting attorney’s discretion. Understanding the classification of crimes is important to understanding the severity of the crime you are being charged with and how it may impact you life going forward.

An infraction, sometimes called a “petty offense,” is a minor violation of state law for which the typical penalty is a fine. California law does not punish infractions with jail time or probation, and infractions do not show up on an offender’s criminal record.

A typical infraction is a violation of a city code, an administrative ordinance, or a traffic rule. Littering, speeding, seatbelt law violations, and similar offenses are infractions.

Because infractions are technically not crimes, defendants in infraction cases do not have the right to court-appointed defense lawyers, the right to avoid self-incrimination, the right to trial by jury, or other Constitutional protections afforded to defendants in misdemeanor or felony cases.

A misdemeanor is a crime carrying a possible penalty of up to one year in county jail. Many misdemeanors carry maximum penalties of six months in jail and a fine of up to $1000. Many other misdemeanors, however, have more severe punishments specified by California law.

Misdemeanors include crimes such as a first-time basic DUI offense, shoplifting, soliciting prostitution, certain domestic violence offenses, and others not considered serious enough to be charged as felonies.

Although misdemeanors are considered less serious than felonies when looking at the basic classification of crimes, they can have serious consequences for those convicted. In addition to up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1000, a convicted misdemeanor offender may be sentenced to community service, counseling, restitution for the victim, and probation. Moreover, a misdemeanor offense will appear on a convicted offender’s criminal record. If you are charged with a misdemeanor offense in California you should seek the help of an experienced criminal defense lawyer to fight the charge or negotiate a sentence with the prosecutor. Depending on the circumstances of the offense and the evidence against you, an attorney may be able to keep you from spending time in jail.

A felony is the most serious type of criminal offense, and is punishable by more than a year in prison. Felony offenses include rape, murder, the sale of controlled substances, and other serious crimes.

In addition to a prison sentence, felony punishments can include probation after incarceration, substantial fines, loss of the right to vote, loss of the right to own firearms, and other consequences. If you have been charged with a felony, it is very important that you work with an experienced criminal defense attorney to fight the charge or to try to negotiate the charge down to a lesser offense.

Some offenses may be either infractions or misdemeanors. Petty theft of goods worth less than $50 is perhaps the most common example of this type of wobbler.

Similarly, other offenses may be charged either as misdemeanors or as felonies, depending upon the circumstances of the particular crime and the criminal history of the defendant. Common examples include some crimes of domestic violence, assault, theft and burglary. A defendant charged with a wobbler violation should hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer to fight the charge or to persuade the prosecutor to settle the charge as the less serious criminal offense.

If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime in California, contact us for further explanation of the classification of crimes in California and the consequences of conviction for each type of offense. Consultations are always free.

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