If you have been charged with or expect to be charged with a criminal offense, speaking with an experienced criminal defense lawyer can help you better understand the charges against you and the potential outcomes associated with those charges. Even before you meet with an attorney, though, it may help you to understand the different levels of criminal offenses in California. These levels include infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies, in ascending order of severity.
An infraction is the least serious level of criminal offense, and in most cases is punishable by a maximum fine of $250. The majority of infractions filed in Los Angeles County are basic traffic citations or moving violations, and most do not require a court appearance but fines may simply be paid at the office of the clerk. Infractions, sometimes referred to as violations, do not carry the possible sentence of jail time or probation, so individuals charged with infractions do not have the right to request a jury trial. In some cases, infractions are considered to be civil offenses rather than criminal offenses.
A misdemeanor is always classified as a criminal offense and carries a maximum sentence of up to one year in a county jail and/or a fine of no more than $1,000. Individuals charged with a misdemeanor may also be forced to pay restitution, enter probation, or dedicate a certain number of hours to community service. Some of the more common misdemeanors in Los Angeles include assault, public drunkenness, and petty theft. There are multiple levels of misdemeanors in California, and more serious violations may be referred to as “aggravated misdemeanors” or “gross misdemeanors.” Examples of aggravated misdemeanors may include repeated drunk driving offenses, driving on a suspended license, and domestic battery.
A felony is the most serious level of criminal offense and may result in a sentence to state prison. In California, “violent” felonies include murder, burglary of a residence, robbery, rape, and assault with intent to commit robbery. The sentence for a felony is left to the discretion of the court, and may depend on the criminal history of the person charged and the severity of the crime in question. Conviction of a felony in California may result to sentencing to state prison or county jail, probation, fines, orders to pay restitution, or in the most severe cases, the death penalty. Since October 2011, punishment for non-violent felony convictions where the offender is not required to register as a sex offender may be served in a county jail.
While the general levels of criminal offenses are infraction, misdemeanor, and felony, California law does afford prosecutors and law enforcement the discretion to determine how some offenses will be classified. These cases are commonly referred to as “wobblers,” and may result in an individual being charged with a greater or lesser offense after the circumstances of the violation are considered.
If you have been charged with a criminal offense, an experienced attorney may be able to help you fight the charges against you, reduce your sentence, or even have the alleged crime expunged from your record. Our criminal defense lawyers in Los Angeles can also counsel and support clients post-conviction to ensure that justice is truly served. To learn more about the many ways a criminal defense lawyer can help you, please contact us today.
Legislative Analyst's Office: the California Legislature's Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor