The Difference Between an Infraction and a Misdemeanor in California

Posted by Neil Shouse | Sep 24, 2018 | 0 Comments

misdemeanor gavel

Infractions and misdemeanors are both offenses in the California criminal justice system. The main difference between the two is in their severity and in how they get punished.

Infractions are less serious offenses than misdemeanors. They are punishable by a maximum fine of $250. Unlike misdemeanors, they do not subject an offender to incarceration.

Common examples of California infractions are:

  • Speeding, per Vehicle Code 22350,
  • Tailgating, per Vehicle Code 21703, and
  • Failure to yield to a pedestrian, per Vehicle Code 21950.

Misdemeanors in California include both standard misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. They are more serios offenses than infractions. Further, they can result in a jail sentence. The maximum sentence is 364 days in the county jail.

Common examples of California misdemeanors are:

  • Drug possession, per Health and Safety Code 11350
  • Shoplifting, per Penal Code 459.5
  • DUI without injury, per Vehicle Code 23152(a) and (b).

California Infractions

Infractions, under California law, largely include traffic/moving violations. They are punishable by a maximum $250 fine.

Please note, however, that this amount is the base fine. The actual fine is most often significantly greater because it includes fees and penalty assessments.

In addition to fines, a person guilty of an infraction might receive points on his DMV driving record. There are two main problems with points. These are:

  1. Points often mean an increase in a driver's insurance rates.
  2. A motorist risks getting a negligent operator license suspension if he gets 4 points in 12 months, 6 points in 24 months or 8 points in 36 months.

Points may get avoided if the guilty party qualifies for, and attends, traffic school.

Some California infractions are classified as “wobbler” offenses. A wobbler is an offense that a prosecutor can charge as either an infraction or a misdemeanor, depending on:

  • The facts of the case, and/or
  • The accused's criminal history.

Some examples of infraction wobblers are:

  • Disturbing the peace, per Penal Code 415, and
  • Exhibition of speed, per Vehicle Code 23109.

California Infractions

Misdemeanors are more serious offenses than infractions. California law divides misdemeanors into two general categories. These are:

  1. Standard misdemeanors, and
  2. Gross, or aggravated, misdemeanors.

Standard misdemeanors are offenses typically punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine. The maximum jail sentence is six months in the county jail. The maximum fine is $1,000.

Examples of standard misdemeanors are:

  • Drug possession, and
  • Shoplifting.

Gross misdemeanors are more serios offenses than standard misdemeanors. The penalties for gross misdemeanors include up to 364 days in the county jail, and/or a fine of up to $1,000 or more.

Examples of gross misdemeanors are:

  • DUI without injury, and
  • Domestic battery, per Penal Code 243(e)(1).

Like infractions, some misdemeanors are wobbler offenses. This means a prosecutor can charge them as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Again, the decision will be made depending on:

  • The facts of the case, and/or
  • The accused's criminal history.

Some common misdemeanor/felony wobblers are:

  • Assault with a deadly weapon, per Penal Code 245(a)(1), and,
  • Elder abuse, per Penal Code 368.

In comparison to infractions, misdemeanors can grow more complex and may involve several legal stages. These could include: arrest, arraignment, bail hearing, trial, and appeal.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.


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