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What is the Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor Under California Law?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Nov 30, 2018 | 0 Comments

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Felonies and misdemeanors are two types of crimes under California law.

A felony is a more serious crime than a misdemeanor. A person guilty of such an offense may face imprisonment in jail or prison for more than one year (even for life). And, in addition, they can be fined up to $10,000.

A few examples of a California felony include:

  • murder, per Penal Code 187;
  • rape, per Penal Code 261; and,
  • the sale of a controlled substance, per Health and Safety Code 11352.

In contrast, a California misdemeanor is a crime that is less severe than a felony. The maximum sentence for these offenses is no more than one year in county jail. Offenders can also face a fine, but it is not more than $1,000.

A few examples of a California misdemeanor include:

  • petty theft, per Penal Code 484;
  • drunk in public, per Penal Code 647(f); and,
  • prostitution, per Penal Code 647(b).

A separate type of offense under California criminal law is a wobbler offense. These crimes can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

California felonies

A felony in California is a crime punishable by:

  • more than one year in jail or prison; and/or,
  • a fine of $10,000 (or in some cases more).

Depending on the crime, felonies can also result in life in prison or the death penalty.

Jail or prison sentences for a felony are sometimes dictated by California statutes. Other times, a judge may decide them depending on the facts of a case and the defendant's criminal history.

As an alternative to lengthy terms of imprisonment, a judge can sentence a felony offender to California formal, or felony, probation.

Some additional examples of a California felony include:

  • lewd acts with a child, per Penal Code 288; and,
  • vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, per Penal Code 192(c).

California misdemeanors

Misdemeanors, under California law, are less severe crimes than felonies. And, there are two types of misdemeanors – “standard” and “gross” or “aggravated” misdemeanors.

A “standard” misdemeanor is punishable by up to six months in county jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

A “gross” or “aggravated” misdemeanor is punishable by up to 364 days in county jail and/or a fine of up to $1000 or more.

Similar with felonies, a judge may award a defendant with probation. This type of probation is also referred to as “informal” or “summary” probation. Misdemeanor probation is granted in lieu of a jail sentence.

Some additional examples of a California misdemeanor include:

  • DUI without injury, per Vehicle Code 23152(a) and (b); and,
  • violating a restraining order, per Penal Code 273.6.

California wobbler offenses

A wobbler offense under California law is a crime that a prosecutor can charge as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

How the prosecutor chooses to charge these crimes depends on:

  • the facts of the case; and,
  • the defendant's criminal history.

A few examples of a California felony/misdemeanor wobbler include:

  • elder abuse, per Penal Code 368;
  • brandishing a weapon, per Penal Code 417; and,
  • assault with a deadly weapon, per Penal Code 245(a)(1).

About the Author

Neil Shouse

Southern California DUI Defense attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT).

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