The statutes of most states, including California, divide criminal offenses into two broad categories – felonies and misdemeanors. A third category – infractions—are not truly criminal offenses but typically carry with them the possibility of a fine if convicted. A speeding ticket is a good example of an infraction. Understanding if the criminal offense you have been accused of in California is a felony or a misdemeanor is clearly important as is a basic understanding of the potential penalties you face if convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor.
In California, a misdemeanor offense is an offense that is punishable by up to a year in jail. California further divides misdemeanor offenses into “standard” and “aggravated” misdemeanors. A standard misdemeanor is less serious than an aggravated misdemeanor and usually carries up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 if convicted. Shoplifting (if the item is relatively inexpensive) is an example of a standard misdemeanor. Aggravated, or gross, misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in jail and also carry a higher potential fine, typically up to $2,000, if convicted. Domestic battery is an example of an aggravated misdemeanor.
“Wobblers” are offenses that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Often, the specific facts of the case determine how the prosecutor charges the crime. Some sex crimes and domestic battery offenses are wobblers. Both your criminal history (or lack thereof) and facts about the case that make it better or worse than other similar cases will usually determine whether you face misdemeanor or felony charges.
Felony offenses are crimes that are punishable by more than a year in prison. California sub-divides felonies into six classes with a class one felony being the most serious. The most serious felonies carry with them the possibility of life in prison without parole and/or the death penalty if convicted. In addition to facing a longer prison sentence, a higher potential fine can be imposed if convicted of a felony in California.
Sometimes a crime is originally charged as a more serious offense and then the charges are later reduced as a result of evidence and argument presented by your attorney or as part of a plea agreement reached in the case. The converse can also be true. The state could originally charge you with a lessor crime and then increase the charges after additional evidence comes to light in the case.
The best way to ensure that you fully understand your charges and the potential penalties you face if convicted of a criminal offense in California is to discuss your case with an experienced California criminal defense attorney.