Misdemeanor (Summary) Probation in California

California misdemeanor probation is an alternative to jail. It allows low-risk offenders to serve most -- or all -- of their sentence under court supervision instead of behind bars.

Misdemeanor probation is sometimes referred to as “summary” or “informal” probation. This contrasts it with California “formal” (felony) probation.

Summary probation typically lasts for between one and three years in California (though it can last up to five). While on probation, the defendant must comply with certain conditions – such as attending counseling, paying restitution, or performing community labor.

If a defendant fails to comply with these conditions, the judge has the right to revoke probation and send the offender to jail.

To help you better understand informal probation in California, our California criminal defense lawyers[1] discuss the following, below:

female attorney and male client behind defense table in court as male judge speaks

1. Who can be sentenced to misdemeanor probation in California?

Almost anyone convicted of a misdemeanor can receive summary probation in California.[2]

The purpose of probation is to:

  • Protect the public, 
  • Restore the victim, and
  • Rehabilitate the offender.[3]

Thus courts typically give summary probation to first-time and juvenile offenders.

But even people with prior convictions can receive misdemeanor probation. It all depends on the judge's assessment of what a defendant will do with a second (or subsequent) chance.

Having an experienced California criminal law attorney on your side can greatly increase your chances of receiving probation instead of jail.

2. How do I get misdemeanor probation instead of jail time?

In many cases, the prosecutor and the defendant's California criminal attorney will agree to probation as part of a plea agreement. In others, the judge will grant probation during sentencing.

While informal probation often includes no jail time, this is isn't guaranteed. But if a sentence of probation includes jail time, it will be for a much shorter period than the maximum.

Example: Michael pleads guilty to a misdemeanor charge of California Penal Code 245(a)(1) PC, assault with a deadly weapon (“ADW”).[4] As a misdemeanor, ADW can be punished by up to a year in county jail.
But Michael has no criminal record and expresses remorse for the crime. The judge sentences him to 3 years of summary probation with just 30 days in jail.

Many factors go into a judge's decision to grant probation. Retaining an experienced California criminal lawyer can greatly increase your chances of getting it.

man in suit unlocking his handcuffs

3. Can I reject probation?

In some cases, a defendant may prefer to serve a sentence and get it over with rather than have to comply with probation conditions for several years.

A judge will not give probation to a defendant who does not want it.

Your California criminal lawyer can help you decide whether it makes sense to reject an offer of probation.

4. How is misdemeanor probation different than felony probation?

The formal definition of misdemeanor probation is found in California Penal Code Section 1203(a):

"As used in this code, 'conditional sentence' means the suspension of the imposition or execution of a sentence and the order of revocable release in the community subject to conditions established by the court without the supervision of a probation officer."[5]

Misdemeanor probation differs from felony probation in several key ways.

For instance, in most misdemeanor cases the judge does not request a "probation report" from the county probation department. An exception is misdemeanor cases involving sex crimes in California.[6]

Another difference is that misdemeanor probationers do not have a "probation officer.” Instead, they go to back to court every now and then to report to a judge on their progress.

5. What conditions can the judge put on misdemeanor probation?

Judges have a great deal of discretion in crafting probation conditions in California. But misdemeanor probation conditions must always be:

  • "Fitting and proper to the end that justice may be done,"[7] and
  • Reasonable and logically related to the offense.[8]

In some cases specific probation conditions are required by law. For instance, people convicted of certain California crimes of domestic violence must complete a batterer's program of treatment.

Other common conditions of summary probation can include that the defendant:

Group counseling session
California misdemeanor probation conditions often include counseling

6. Progress reports in informal probation

A defendant on misdemeanor probation must return to court periodically to give the judge a “progress report.”

The judge will review the offender's case, ask questions about his or her progress, and discuss any specific problems.

Failure to appear ("FTA") as scheduled is a probation violation. It will result in the judge issuing a California bench warrant for the defendant's arrest.

Favorable progress, on the other hand, moves the defendant one step closer to completing probation.

Our California criminal defense attorneys feel proud and gratified when our clients fulfill (and even exceed) the expectations of judges during progress reports!

7. Can a probation order be modified?

The judge has discretion to modify the terms of probation. Such modification can be initiated by the judge, the defendant or the prosecutor.

Modification is not always in the probationer's favor. For instance, in response to a probation violation the judge might:

  • Extend the period of probation, or
  • Increase the period the probationer must spend in jail.

But often a probation modification can help a defendant.

Example: Ron is several months into his misdemeanor probation for DUI. He is complying with all conditions of his probation – including completing alcohol education classes on schedule.
But Ron has lost his job. He fears he will be late paying one of the installments on his fine. Ron's California criminal defense attorney explains Ron's situation to the judge. The judge agrees to modify Ron's probation to create a more manageable payment schedule.

8. Is it possible to get probation terminated early?

California law allows a judges to terminate misdemeanor probation early. The judge usually does this when someone completes probation conditions ahead of schedule and without any violations.[10]

Not all judges are receptive to early termination of probation. In particular, some are reluctant to grant early termination in cases involving:

  • Driving under the influence (DUI), or
  • California crimes of domestic violence.

9. Can I travel to other counties, states and countries while on misdemeanor probation?

People on misdemeanor probation have no restrictions on travel. This is one significant way in which misdemeanor (informal) probation differs from felony (formal) probation.

But defendants remain obligated to comply with all conditions of their probation. Such conditions can include regular attendance at counseling or community service. As a practical matter, therefore, such conditions may make it difficult to leave the state.

If you are not certain whether you can travel, your California criminal lawyer can review the conditions of your probation.

You can also petition the court to modify your probation conditions so as to let you travel or relocate.

nicely dressed woman sitting and waiting for job interview

10. How will misdemeanor probation affect my employment?

California law prohibits potential employers from asking about arrests that do not result in a conviction.[11]

But if someone is on probation, it means he or she was convicted. Thus an employer may legally ask about – and an applicant must legally disclose – an adult court conviction that resulted in probation.[12]

Disclosing a conviction does not mean you will be denied employment. Most employers allow applicants to explain the circumstances of a conviction. The fact that a court has granted probation may convince a potential employer to give you a chance.

And once your probation ends, you can file a petition to get your California misdemeanor conviction expunged. Once the court grants an expungement, you no longer need to disclose it to most potential employers.

11. What happens if I violate my probation in California?

If a defendant fails to comply with the conditions of probation, the judge can:

  • Overlook the violation,
  • Modify the probation order, or 
  • Revoke probation and send the defendant to jail.[13]

If the court orders the defendant to jail, it can be for up to the maximum punishment for the original crime. There may also be an additional sentence if the probation violation involved a new crime.

Example: Bill received 3 years summary probation for Penal Code 25850, carrying a loaded firearm in public. As part of his probation, he was prohibited from possessing a gun.
During his probation, Bill is arrested for Penal Code 25400, carrying a concealed weapon ("CCW"). The judge revokes Bill's probation and sentences him to the maximum 1 year in jail for the ADW. Bill may also receive additional jail time if he is convicted on the CCW charge.

Before a judge revokes probation, however, there will be a California probation violation hearing. At the hearing the defendant will have the opportunity to deny or explain the violation.

If the defendant fails to attend the hearing – or if the defendant loses – the judge will immediately revoke probation and send the defendant to jail.

12. Can I get my criminal record expunged once I complete my probation?

After successful completion of probation, a defendant may be able to clean up his or her rap sheet in California.

The defendant does this by petitioning the court for expungement of a criminal record in California.

An expunged conviction will still show up on your official government rap sheet. But it should not be reported on a criminal records background check in California conducted by any private record search firm.

Just as importantly, you do not have to disclose an expunged conviction to most private employers.

For more information, please see our article on “Five Benefits of an Expungement in California.”

Charged with a misdemeanor in California? Call us for help…

female receptionist

If you or someone you know has been charged with a misdemeanor, we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

As former prosecutors and now defense lawyers, our California criminal defense attorneys know the best ways to challenge misdemeanor cases.

We have a proven track record of securing outcomes with the least restrictive probation conditions.

Call us at (855) 396-0370 to schedule your free consultation with a lawyer. Or fill out the form on this page and a lawyer will call you at a mutually convenient time.

Legal references:

  1. Our California criminal defense attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina and Whittier.  We have additional law offices conveniently located throughout the state in Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
  2. An exception is people with two prior felony convictions. See California Penal Code Section 1203 (4).
  3. California Penal Code Section 1202.7.
  4. Assault with a deadly weapon (ADW) is a California "wobbler" offense. This means it can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor, in the prosecutor's discretion.
  5. California Penal Code Section 1203(a) provides:  "As used in this code, "probation" means the suspension of the imposition or execution of a sentence and the order of conditional and revocable release in the community under the supervision of a probation officer.  As used in this code, "conditional sentence" means the suspension of the imposition or execution of a sentence and the order of revocable release in the community subject to conditions established by the court without the supervision of a probation officer.  It is the intent of the Legislature that both conditional sentence and probation are authorized whenever probation is authorized in any code as a sentencing option for infractions or misdemeanors.  However, where the maximum possible term of the sentence is five years or less, then the period of suspension of imposition or execution of sentence may, in the discretion of the court, continue for not over five years.  The following shall apply to this subdivision:  (1) The court may fine the defendant in a sum not to exceed the maximum fine provided by law in the case.  (2) The court may, in connection with granting probation, impose either imprisonment in a county jail or a fine, both, or neither.  (3) The court shall provide for restitution in proper cases.  The restitution order shall be fully enforceable as a civil judgment forthwith and in accordance with Section 1202.4 of the Penal Code.  (4) The court may require bonds for the faithful observance and performance of any or all of the conditions of probation."
  6. California Penal Code Section 1203(b).
  7. California Penal Code Section 1203.1(j).
  8. People v. Carbajal (1995) 10 Cal.4th 1114, 1120.
  9. California Penal Code Section 1202.4.
  10. California Penal Code Section 1203.3(a).
  11. Labor Code Section 432.7.
  12. Juvenile convictions do not usually need to be disclosed. See Labor Code 432.7 (2).
  13. California Penal Code Section 1203.3(a).

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