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The Difference Between Misdemeanors and Felonies in California

The Difference Between Misdemeanors and Felonies in California

The Difference Between Misdemeanors and Felonies in California

California defines offenses by a system that classifies the level of charges as infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies. These categories signify the severity of an offense. Infractions that do not involve jail time are the least severe, followed by misdemeanors (which include country jail time and/or a fine) and felonies (normally requiring federal or state prison time and fines).

Every misdemeanor in California is punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine. At the same time, all felonies have the potential for longer prison time - over a year to lifetime imprisonment.

Regardless of your crime, you must resolve your case through California's justice system, as the process is similar for both misdemeanors and felonies. This means you’ll also need a criminal defense attorney’s assistance to ensure you experience the best outcome for your case.

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How does the Level of Charges System Operate?

Not all crimes, as noted, are considered the same. Some are more severe than others, and punishments under the law are proportional to the severity of the offense. For instance, when it comes to violent crime, assault is considered less serious than murder.

According to California Penal Code § 241, assault is an attempt to injure another person willingly.

California Penal Code § 187 defines murder as killing someone unlawfully with intent. If the crime is done out of passion or without premeditation, it is classified as manslaughter.

First and Second Degree Murder

The level of charges in a murder or manslaughter case depends on one factor - malice aforethought (express or implied) - an intent to kill or harm.

The level of charges in a murder indictment is based then on whether or not the offender unlawfully intended to kill the victim.

If express malice was present, the defendant directly intended and planned to kill the victim.

If the malice is implied, the prosecutor must show that the defendant:

  • Committed the murder with intent (or with a “depraved” heart)
  • The probable and natural consequences were harmful to human life
  • The accused knew what they were doing was dangerous
  • The murder happened with complete disregard for the victim or for human life

Implied malice must be present for a second-degree murder charge.

To have malice aforethought, you don’t need to feel angry or ill will toward the victim.

Types of Manslaughter

Manslaughter, which is not based on intent, falls under the categories of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

Voluntary Manslaughter

This form of homicide usually takes place in the heat of a dispute and is typically motivated by the victim. The defendant responds randomly, without any thought of the outcome. For example, catching your spouse cheating on you and killing them and/or the other party is an example of this type of crime.

Involuntary Manslaughter

When a homicide is classified as involuntary manslaughter, it is also absent of revenge or malice. Instead, the defendant acted recklessly or with negligence. The charge is normally against offenders accused of drunk driving, running a stop sign or red light, or racing on the roadway, as defined under California Code 192(b).

Felony Charges in California

The most serious crimes a person can commit, felonies, again, are punishable by more than a year in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000. Examples of felonies include murder, robbery, rape, and burglary.

Some of the offenses expressly state the punishments imposed. For instance, under California Penal Code § 213, a charge of first-degree robbery is punished by three, four, or six years in prison. A second-degree robbery charge comes with imprisonment of two, three, or five years.

In some cases, the statutes may state the crime is a felony or punished per the state’s Penal Code § 1170(h) - punishments that cover 16 months or two to three years in prison.

When imposing punishments, the judge considers the aggravating factors, such as the use of a weapon or mitigating factors that can reduce the prison time or the fine.

Misdemeanor Charges in California

As mentioned, all misdemeanor charges come with penalties that involve up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Examples of misdemeanors include assault, theft, DUI, and shoplifting.


Misdemeanors And Felonies

A wobbler is an offense that may be a misdemeanor or a felony. A prosecutor decides on the severity of the punishment based on the case facts. If the defendant has a criminal record or their crime led to serious bodily injury, the wobbler is typically categorized as a felony.

For crimes that are less severe or where the defendant has no previous arrests, the crime may be reduced to a misdemeanor offense.

Crimes such as assault, battery, and burglary may be under this classification.

A Closer Look at Common Misdemeanor Crimes in California

In California, common misdemeanors include:

Theft. This crime refers to stealing items valued at $950 or less. For example, taking an item from a store without paying for it or unlawfully taking someone’s bicycle are examples of these types of crimes.

Simple assault. Simple assault involves threatening to harm someone or engaging in behavior that makes them fear harm. It doesn't result in an injury.

Public intoxication. This crime occurs when someone appears drunk in public - causing a disturbance or endangering themselves or others.

Disorderly conduct. This offense refers to engaging in behavior that disturbs the peace. Examples include making loud noises, urinating in public, or exposing oneself indecently.

Vandalism. Vandalism involves damaging or defacing another party’s property. This includes actions like adding graffiti to a wall, scratching a car with keys, or causing damage to buildings. Crimes that result in under $400 worth of damage are classified as misdemeanor offenses.

Trespassing. Trespassing occurs when someone enters or remains on another person’s property without permission.

Loitering. This offense refers to lingering without a purpose in public places.

Examples of Common Felonies in California

Some common felonies in California include:

Assault with a Deadly Weapon

The felony, assault with a deadly weapon, may include causing harm to someone using an object or a gun, knife, club, or similar weapon.


Unlawfully using force or violence against another person, such as punching, hitting, or kicking them, defines the crime of battery. It is normally a complement to an assault charge.

Domestic violence

Domestic violence involves engaging in sexual or emotional abuse towards a partner or family member. This may include behaviors like hitting, slapping, stalking, or making threats of violence.

Property Crimes

Property crimes include burglary, illegally entering a building or vehicle with the intention of committing theft, or another felony offense.

Burglary also includes breaking into homes, businesses, or cars to steal property or valuables.

Grand theft

Grand theft is stealing property or money valued at $950 or more. Thefts that involve the taking of vehicles, firearms, jewelry, electronics, or sums of money fall under this category.


Starting a fire with the intention to cause damage or destroy property is considered a serious crime, especially if it leads to injury or loss of life.


Vandalism, when defined as a felony, refers to the act of damaging or destroying someone’s property. This can include actions like breaking windows or slashing tires, provided the damage was at least $400.

Understanding the Distinctions between Misdemeanors and Felonies

The penalties one faces when breaking the law differ - depending, again, on whether the offense is classified as a misdemeanor or felony. In California specifically, there are variations in how these crimes are handled.

Incarceration and Rights

Once more, individuals may be sentenced to up to one year in a county jail for all misdemeanors in California.

Felonies carry severe punishments, including years or even decades spent in state prison. Additionally, being convicted of a felony can result in losing your rights, such as voting privileges and gun ownership.

Monetary Penalties

Misdemeanor charges generally lead to fines amounting to $1,000 or less. Felonies can incur penalties, sometimes exceeding $10,000.

The court may also require you to compensate victims for their losses and damages in the form of restitution. This can be required when a person is sentenced or may be part of the condition for probation.


In the case of a misdemeanor, you may be placed on either formal probation for three years, or up to five years if you’re convicted of a felony. While on probation, you must adhere to the terms and conditions, such as community service, drug testing, or attending anger management classes. Failing to comply with probation terms can result in incarceration.

A Permanent Criminal Record

Misdemeanors or felonies can leave an unwanted mark on your criminal history. This can make securing employment, housing, and other opportunities challenging after completing your sentence and/or probation period.

Expungement or Cleaning Your Record

True expungement does not exist in California. However, you can clean your record, depending on your criminal history and the nature of your crime.

Convictions that can’t be expunged include lewd and lascivious acts with a minor, unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, oral copulation with a minor, or failing to submit to a police inspection of a vehicle by the police.

For misdemeanors, there may be an option to petition the court for expungement once you have fulfilled your sentence.

Felony convictions are not instantly expunged as time goes on but require the filing and granting of an expungement petition. Some felony cases are wobblers - meaning they may be reduced to misdemeanors (even after a long time) and then expunged.

The repercussions of committing a crime are life-altering. Although misdemeanors carry less severe punishments compared to felony convictions, they still may keep you from pursuing certain careers or reduce your opportunities financially.

How a Lawyer Can Assist with Your Criminal Defense?

If charged with a crime, you should immediately seek legal counsel from an attorney who can explore various avenues for reducing or dismissing the charges against you. They possess insights into the distinctions between these offense classifications and can, therefore, help mitigate potential penalties.


Criminal law is intricate, and criminal defense attorneys possess the knowledge and experience necessary to build a defense strategy. They remain current with the laws and sentencing guidelines so they can develop a strong defense tailored to the unique circumstances of your alleged offense.

An attorney understands how to challenge the prosecution’s evidence or arguments against you. They can counter the arguments by finding incongruencies and questioning the methods used to obtain proof.

Safeguarding Your Rights

From the moment you are charged, your Constitutional rights are at risk. An attorney safeguards your rights at every stage of the proceedings. They provide guidance on decisions while serving as your legal representative. Given that anything you say can be used against you, having an attorney's professional advice is imperative.

Negotiating Plea Agreements

Many criminal cases reach a resolution through plea bargaining a process where both the prosecution and defense negotiate terms involving the charges and reduced penalties. A skilled lawyer understands how to exploit weaknesses in the prosecution’s case to secure a plea bargain on your behalf. They will carefully assess the specifics and evidence to determine whether accepting a plea deal is in your interest or if proceeding to trial is a better option.

Exploring Alternative Sentencing Options

Alternative sentencing options such as probation, rehabilitation, community service, or diversion programs may be viable possibilities. A lawyer will thoroughly examine these alternatives so you can avoid incarceration.

They can present supporting evidence and arguments that demonstrate why an alternative sentence aligns with the circumstances of the offense and your personal background and history.

A lawyer serves as your advocate and ally within the criminal justice system. Hiring legal representation to defend against charges in California is a critical first step toward safeguarding your freedom, rights, and future. An attorney’s wealth of experience can significantly impact the outcome of your case.

Make sure you have a legal advocate supporting you every step of the way. If you haven’t done so already, contact a criminal, DUI, & licensed defense lawyer to ensure you can get through the legal process more successfully.

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