Guide to California’s Criminal Charge Categories: Misdemeanors vs. Felonies vs. Infractions

In California, criminal offenses fall into three main categories: infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. Each category carries distinct penalties and legal implications. Let’s break them down.

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1. Infractions

What is an infraction in California?

Infractions are minor offenses that are not considered crimes. They include traffic violations, noise disturbances, and other petty matters.

What are the penalties for an infraction in California?

  • Maximum Fine: Infractions are punishable by a maximum fine of $250 (although certain traffic infractions can carry fines of up to $500).
  • No Jail Time: Unlike misdemeanors, infractions do not result in actual jail sentences.

2. Misdemeanors

What is a misdemeanor in California?

Misdemeanors are more serious offenses than infractions. They can result in imprisonment and/or fines. Misdemeanor crimes are further broken down into standard misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors, which are more serious offenses.

Examples of California misdemeanors include petty theft, shoplifting less than $950 worth of goods, and simple assault.

What are the penalties for a misdemeanor in California?

  • Maximum Jail Sentence: Misdemeanors can lead to a maximum jail sentence of six months in the county jail.
  • Maximum Fine: The maximum fine for misdemeanors is $1,000.

What is a gross misdemeanor in California?

Gross misdemeanors are a more serious subcategory of misdemeanors. Some examples are reckless driving causing injury, and domestic violence (non-felony level).

What are the penalties for a gross misdemeanor in California?

  • Maximum Jail Sentence: Gross misdemeanors can result in up to 364 days in the county jail.
  • Higher Fines: Fines for gross misdemeanors can exceed $1,000.

3. Felonies

What is a felony in California?

Felonies are the most serious crimes, carrying severe punishment. Examples of felonies are murder, robbery, and burglary.

What are the penalties for a felony in California?

  • Prison Time: Felonies can lead to imprisonment in state prison, potentially up to life in prison.
  • Probation: Felons may also face up to two years of probation.
  • Fines: Felonies may involve substantial fines of thousands of dollars.

4. Wobblers

What is a wobbler crime in California?

Some offenses are considered wobblers, meaning they can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies based on specific circumstances. The decision to charge as a misdemeanor or felony depends on factors such as severity and the defendant’s criminal history. Examples of wobblers include certain drug offenses and theft crimes.


California Prop 47 Changes to Theft and Drug Crimes


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