Legal Definition of a "Misdemeanor" in California Law

In California a misdemeanor is defined as a crime for which the maximum sentence is no more than one year in county jail. A misdemeanor is more serious than an infraction but less serious than a California felony.

California misdemeanors fall into two basic categories:

  1. “Standard” California misdemeanors, punishable by up to 6 months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000;[1] and
  2. “Gross” or “aggravated” misdemeanors,” punishable by up to 364 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000 or more.[2]

There are also certain crimes known as California “wobbler” offenses. These are crimes which the prosecutor can choose to charge as a misdemeanor or a felony (or, in some cases, a misdemeanor or an infraction).

To help you better understand California misdemeanors, our California criminal defense lawyers discuss, below:

close-up of judge's gavel coming down

1. What is the penalty for a misdemeanor in California?

California misdemeanors fall into two general categories:

  • Standard misdemeanors, and
  • "Gross" or "aggravated" misdemeanors.

1.1. Punishment for a standard misdemeanor

Standard California misdemeanors are offenses that are usually punishable by a maximum of:

  • 6 months in county jail, and /or 
  • A fine of up to $1,000.

1.2. Punishment for a "gross" or "aggravated" misdemeanor

Certain California misdemeanor offenses are considered more serious than others. These are known as "gross misdemeanors" or "aggravated misdemeanors."

In California, consequences of a gross misdemeanor conviction can include:

  • Up to 364 days in county jail, and/or
  • A fine of up to $1,000 or more.

You may sometimes read that a misdemeanor can be punished by “up to 1 year” in county jail.

But as of January 1, 2015, the maximum sentence for a California misdemeanor is 364 days.[3] As discussed in Section 7, below, this prevents a misdemeanor crime involving moral turpitude from being a “deportable offense” under U.S. law.

In this article, we use the terms "up to 364 days" and "up to 1 year" interchangeably.

2. What are some common misdemeanors in California?

Common standard misdemeanors include (but are not limited to):

Common "aggravated" misdemeanors include (but are not limited to):

woman putting new pair of jeans with tags into her purse
Shoplifting is a misdemeanor in California

3. What is a California “wobbler” offense?

Some California offenses can be charged either more or less seriously, in the prosecutor's discretion.

These so-called California “wobbler” offenses fall into two categories:

  1. Misdemeanor / felony wobblers, and
  2. Misdemeanor / infraction wobblers.

How the prosecutor chooses to charge a wobbler offense depends on:

  • The facts of the case, and/or
  • The defendant's criminal history, if any.[4]

3.1. What are some common misdemeanor / felony wobblers?

Common misdemeanor / felony “wobbler” crimes in California include (but are not limited to):

3.2. What are some common misdemeanor / infraction wobblers?

Examples of California misdemeanor / infraction wobblers include (but are not limited to):

  • Disturbing the peace -- Penal Code 415 (punishable as a misdemeanor by up to 90 days in jail and/or up to a $400 fine), and
  • Wobbler trespassing (punishable as a misdemeanor by up to 6 months in jail and/or up to a $1,000 fine).
young man in handcuffs

4. What is the process after a misdemeanor arrest?

Misdemeanor cases in California can proceed through various stages in the following order:

  1. Arrest;
  2. Arraignment (formal charging and plea);
  3. Bail hearing;
  4. Pretrial phase (including discovery and motions to dismiss or exclude evidence);
  5. Jury trial or bench trial; and
  6. Appeal.

Most misdemeanor cases will not go through all of these steps. A case can be dropped at any stage if the evidence is weak or the court grants a motion to suppress evidence. Or the prosecution and the defense can agree to a plea bargain in California.

For more information about each of these stages, please see our article on "California's Criminal Court Process."

5. Can I get probation for a misdemeanor?

Misdemeanor violations are often punished with misdemeanor probation in California. Misdemeanor probation is sometimes referred to as “summary,” or “informal” probation.

Misdemeanor probation typically lasts for 1 – 3 years. During that time, the defendant must adhere to certain conditions in order to stay out of jail.

Conditions of probation can include (without limitation):

  • Community service or labor (such as CAL-TRANS roadside work),
  • Electronic monitoring or house arrest,
  • Participation in counseling / treatment programs, and /or 
  • Paying victim restitution.

Having an experienced California criminal lawyer on your side can greatly improve your chances of receiving probation instead of jail time.

Caltrans community service workers cleaning side of highway

6. Does a misdemeanor give you a criminal record?

A misdemeanor charge results in a criminal record when:

  • The defendant pleads guilty;
  • The defendant pleads “no contest”: or
  • The defendant is found guilty at trial.

An exception is when defendants participate in and successfully complete California PC 1000 Drug Diversion or Prop 36 drug diversion.

If the defendant successfully completes diversion, the judge will dismiss the charges and there will be no conviction.

Otherwise, a conviction stays on the defendant's criminal record unless and until it is sealed or expunged.

7. Can you expunge a misdemeanor from your record in California?

California law permits expungement of most misdemeanor crimes. The exception is a misdemeanor sex crime against a child – such as certain counts of statutory rape, California Penal Code 261.5 PC.

To be eligible to expunge a California misdemeanor the defendant:

  • Must have successfully completed probation, and
  • Must not currently be charged with, on probation for, or serving a sentence for a criminal offense.

If asked about criminal history on a job application or in an interview, the defendant does not need to disclose an expunged conviction.

To learn more how to expunge a misdemeanor, please see our article on "Penal Code 1203.4 PC, Expungement of Criminal Records in California."

You may also wish to read our article on “Criminal Convictions and Job Applications in California.” 

8. Can a misdemeanor conviction lead to deportation?

Most misdemeanors do not lead to deportation unless they involve:

  • Drugs,
  • Firearms, or
  • Domestic violence.

Under U.S. law, non- citizens are subject to deportation if within five years of admission to the U.S they commit a crime that:

  • Involves “moral turpitude,” and
  • Carries a potential sentence of 1 year or more.[5] 

As of January 1, 2015, the maximum punishment for a misdemeanor in California is 364 days.[6] Because this is less than 1 year, conviction on a single California misdemeanor no longer subjects someone to deportation for a crime of moral turpitude.

For more information, please see our article “California Crimes that Can Lead to Deportation.”

Charged with a CA misdemeanor? Call us for help...

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

Our California criminal lawyers have a proven track record of helping clients fight misdemeanor charges.

We can also help you expunge a California misdemeanor conviction or petition to have a felony reduced to a misdemeanor.

To schedule your free consultation call us at (855) 396-0370. Or complete the form on this page and a lawyer will call you at a convenient time.

We have local offices throughout California, including in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, and San Jose

We also have offices in Nevada and Colorado to serve your needs in those states. For more information please visit our pages on Nevada misdemeanors or Colorado misdemeanors.

Legal references:

  1. California Penal Code 19 PC.
  2. California Penal Code 18.5 PC.
  3. Same.
  4. See California Penal Code 17(b) PC.
  5. INA 237(a)(2)(A); 8 USC 1227(a)(2)(A).
  6. Penal Code 18.5.

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