Legal Basics

Legal Basics: Answers to some basic questions you are too afraid to ask (but you really want to know) – California edition

QuestionsHere’s the basics about law and the legal system in California. For even more basics, see our Law Basics: United States. For much, much more, get the new Law Soup book, called Law is Not for Lawyers (It’s for Everyone)!

How do I find out what all this legalese means?

Law Soup aims to set out the law in plain language, but sometimes we have to use a term that people are not familiar with. To find a definition of these terms, see our glossary of terms.

What are the consequences of violating a law in California?

There are a range of possible consequences, depending on which laws are violated. Sometimes a particular law will specify the consequences for violating it, but often they do not. If it is a “civil” law (non-criminal), then usually the violator can be sued and made to pay an amount of money to the “violated” person to compensate them.

For criminal laws, usually the particular law specifies the punishment. In California, criminal laws are categorized as either a felony, misdemeanor, or infraction. See our Guide to Felonies vs Misdemeanors vs Infractions.

Violations of city laws (called “ordinances”) are generally misdemeanor crimes (usually punishable by up to 1 year in jail), unless otherwise specified as an infraction, and may be prosecuted by city authorities.1 California Government Code § 36900(a)

What laws apply to me?

For most of the actions you take, your physical location at the time you take the action determines which laws have “jurisdiction” over you. For example, if you are driving through the City of Los Angeles, you are subject to the traffic laws of (1) the City of L.A., (2) the state of California, and (3) the United States (federal laws). If you then drive through the city of Beverly Hills, you would be subject to that city’s traffic laws instead of L.A.’s traffic laws (but note that city traffic laws don’t vary too much from the state laws, except for parking laws and some other things).

However, actions that affect other cities or states (for example, shipping a product to a customer in another state) may also subject you to the laws of these other cities or states.

How do I find out whether I am within the official boundaries of a particular city?

Figuring out what city you are in (and thus which laws apply) is not always so easy.

Many locations are almost always referred to by their neighborhood or district name, leading some people to Los Angeles Vintage Mapthink these areas are in fact separate cities when they are not. For example, “Sherman Oaks” is a district within the city of Los Angeles. There is no City of Sherman Oaks. The laws of the city of L.A. apply to Sherman Oaks.

In addition, some areas are not within a city at all, but are “unincorporated areas” subject to the laws of the County rather than any city. Marina del Rey is an example of an unincorporated area within L.A. County.

For more on this, see “What City am I in?

Where do laws come from?

Photo by Tambako The Jaguar, CC 2.0

Photo of Storks by Tambako The Jaguar, CC 2.0

There are many sources of laws. In California, these include:

Laws come from a variety of sources, including:

  • Federal/national
    • U.S. Constitution
    • Federal legislation (aka “statutes”) passed by Congress and signed by President, compiled in the U.S. Code
    • Federal court cases decided by federal judges and justices, including the U.S. Supreme Court
    • Rules and Regulations made by federal government agencies (such as the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA), compiled in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations
    • Executive actions and orders by the president
  • State
    • California Constitution
    • State legislation (aka “statutes”) passed by the state legislature (comprised of California Assembly and California Senate), and signed by governor, compiled in California Codes (including Business & Professions Code, Vehicle Code, etc)
    • State ballot initiatives approved by California voters
    • State court cases decided by state judges and justices, including the California Supreme Court
    • Rules and regulations made by state government agencies, such as the California Department of Consumer Affairs
    • Executive actions and orders by the governor
  • Local
    Local laws are created by your local government (see What City am I in?)

    • City Charter (for “charter cities“): this is like the “constitution” of the city
    • County laws passed by County Board of Supervisors (mostly applicable to unincorporated areas)
    • City laws and ordinances passed by City Council, compiled in municipal codes
    • City-wide ballot initiatives approved by the voters
    • Regulations passed by city government agencies

When we describe a particular law on Law Soup, we usually give a citation to its source so you can find out where exactly the law came from. Then you will also know where to go if you want the law changed in some way.

Who Makes State Laws?

Most laws are made at the state level, so it’s important to understand how the state government operates. Like the federal government, states have a legislative, executive, and judicial branch. In California, the legislature is made up of the California Assembly (consisting of Assemblymembers) and the California Senate (state Senators). State laws are made when both the state Assembly and state Senate vote on a bill and the governor signs it into law.

For answers to the following questions, see Legal Basics: United States

If I happen to break a law that I wasn’t aware of, can’t I just claim I didn’t know about it and get off the hook?

Can a law be illegal?

If there is no law against something, is it legal?

What happens if federal, state, or local laws conflict?

Further Resources

For much, much more, get the new Law Soup book, called Law is Not for Lawyers (It’s for Everyone)!

For more specific legal information, check out our Legal Guides.


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