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

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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