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

Posted by Neil Shouse | Dec 04, 2018 | 0 Comments

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A misdemeanor is a more serious crime than an infraction.

Misdemeanors and infractions are two types of crimes under California law.

A misdemeanor is a more serious crime than an infraction. A person guilty of this type of offense faces a maximum sentence of no more than one year in county jail. Offenders can also face a maximum fine of $1,000.

A few examples of a California misdemeanor include:

  • petty theft, per Penal Code 484;
  • malicious mischief to a vehicle, per Vehicle Code 10853; and,
  • false advertising, per Business and Professions Code 17500.

In contrast, a California infraction is less severe than a misdemeanor. This crime is punishable by a maximum fine of $250. A person guilty of an infraction is not subject to incarceration.

A few examples of a California infraction include:

  • speeding, per Vehicle Code 22350;
  • illegal dumping of waste, per Penal Code 374.3; and,
  • driving on a bike lane, per Vehicle Code 21209.

A separate type of offense under California criminal law is a wobblette offense. This crime can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

California misdemeanors

Misdemeanors are more serious crimes in comparison to infractions. There are two types of misdemeanors under California law – “standard” and “gross” 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.

In some misdemeanor cases, a judge may award a defendant with probation. This type of probation is 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,
  • misdemeanor hit and run, per Vehicle Code 20002.

California infractions

Infractions are crimes in which no jail sentence is imposed as punishment. Rather, these offenses are punishable by a maximum fine of $250.

Most infractions in California are moving violations. In addition to the above examples, California infractions may include:

  • crossing a divided highway, per Vehicle Code 21651(a); and,
  • tailgating, per Vehicle Code 21703.

California wobblette offenses

A wobblette offense is a California crime that a prosecutor can charge as either a misdemeanor or an infraction, depending on:

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

A few examples of California wobblettes include:

  • disturbing the peace, per Penal Code 415; and,
  • driving without a license, per Vehicle Code 12500(a).

Please note that in these types of cases, an accused must consent to being charged with an infraction rather than a misdemeanor. The reason is that a person charged with an infraction must give up certain rights. These include the right to a jury trial and access to a public defender.

In making this decision, some offenders may prefer an infraction since they would only have to pay a small fine. Sometimes, though, a misdemeanor may seem more favorable. For example, a defendant may opt for a misdemeanor charge if he has served jail time on a related charge. This is because he can be sentenced to time served rather than having to pay a fine.

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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