California law defines three categories of crimes to distinguish which type of offenses are the most serious. While criminal charges may be filed as an infraction, a misdemeanor, or a felony, few people know which is worse. In terms of both the severity of the charges and the potential penalties, a felony is more serious than a misdemeanor. On the other hand, a misdemeanor is worse than an infraction.
What is the Difference Between an Infraction, a Misdemeanor, and a Felony?
The easiest way to distinguish between these three levels of charges is by looking at the potential penalties. Infractions only result in fines. Misdemeanors are punishable by fines and up to one year of jail time or probation. Felonies are punishable by prison time, up to two years of probation, and fines. The most serious felonies can even result in life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Unlike other states, California does not divide these crime classifications into levels or classes (such as a Level 1 Felony or Class C misdemeanor), so you typically need to look up a specific crime to learn the exact penalties.
What are Infractions?
Often referred to as “citations” or “tickets,” these are the least serious criminal offenses, punishable by no more than a fine. Unlike more serious criminal charges, infractions are resolved without a court appearance —though you can still choose to fight the charges in court with or without an attorney. Because these offenses do not carry a possible jail sentence, those charged with an infraction have no right to a trial by jury or a court-appointed lawyer.
Some examples of infractions include:
- Minor driving crimes, such as speeding or driving with an open container
- Crossing the street in an unsafe manner
- Disorderly conduct
- “Fix-it” tickets
What is a Misdemeanor?
In California, a misdemeanor is a crime that carries a sentence of no longer than one year in county jail. In some cases, these offenses are punishable by no more than a fine. Other possible penalties that can be included in the sentence for a misdemeanor conviction or one for a felony include:
- Community service
- Loss of professional licenses
- DUI or domestic violence classes
- Restitution to the victim
Aside from the potential for incarceration, another difference between a misdemeanor and an infraction is that the latter will not appear on your criminal record, whereas a misdemeanor will. Fortunately, California allows most people to qualify for automatic expungements after they have served their entire sentence. Most misdemeanor offenses even qualify for a diversion program, which wipes the crime from your record as soon as you meet all the terms of the diversion program agreement.
On the other hand, a major benefit of being charged with a misdemeanor versus a felony is that you can often waive your right to appear in court and have your criminal defense attorney appear on your behalf, which is convenient if you cannot miss work. This option is not available for those facing misdemeanor-level domestic violence charges.
Common misdemeanor crimes include:
- Petty theft
- Minor drug possession
- Simple assault or battery
- More serious traffic offenses, such as reckless driving or driving on a suspended license
- Public intoxication
- Minor in possession
While misdemeanors are generally minor offenses, there are two specific forms with more serious consequences than the rest. If you are charged with a misdemeanor domestic violence or a sex crime, you will face additional penalties beyond those of a typical misdemeanor.
Aside from being required to attend court in person, those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence will also lose their right to own a firearm, which could affect their ability to serve in the armed forces.
Similarly, even misdemeanor sex offenses may require registration on the sex offender list. While most people convicted of misdemeanor sex crimes will only be required to register for ten years, those on the registry for the minimum required time will not be automatically removed from it. Instead, they must petition the court to be removed from the registry.
What Are Felonies?
Felonies are the most serious crimes in California, and some are even punishable by the death penalty. If you are convicted of a felony, you may serve time in a state prison, although some offenders will be sentenced to probation instead. Those convicted of violent and serious felonies typically have a strike added to their record, and under the state’s three strike law, those who receive three strikes will be imprisoned for life.
Many low-level felony crimes allow a state prison sentence to be served in local jail under a split sentence, meaning part of the sentence will be served in a local jail while the remainder is spent out of jail under community supervision. While felony probation (also known as formal probation) has more restrictions than misdemeanor (or summary) probation, it is still typically preferable over prison time.
There are many other distinctions between misdemeanors and felonies aside from differences in sentencing. If you are accused of a felony, you must go to court in person, which is typically not the case for misdemeanors. Similarly, there is a longer statute of limitations for felony charges than misdemeanors.
Some examples of felonies include:
- Drug sales
- Drug manufacturing
- Lewd acts with a minor (child molestation)
- Furnishing marijuana to a minor
No matter what sentence you receive, having a felony conviction on your record can have lifelong consequences, including:
- Preventing you from owning firearms
- Leaving you with a DNA record in the state and federal database
- Making you ineligible for jury duty
- Disqualifying you from military service
- Potentially resulting in your being discriminated against while seeking employment and looking for affordable housing
For this reason, when the felony is not serious or violent, defense attorneys often work to negotiate plea bargains that will allow the charges to be reduced to a misdemeanor version of the offense to ensure their client will not suffer these consequences.
What is a Wobbler?
Some crimes can be either a felony or misdemeanor. This type of offense is known as a “wobbler.” For crimes like battery, the severity of the filed charges will often be based on the degree of injury suffered by the victim. When a crime is a wobbler, criminal defense attorneys often work to have the charges reduced to a misdemeanor, sometimes as part of a plea bargain.
Examples of wobblers include:
- Grand theft
- Aggravated assault
- Aggravated battery
- Criminal threats
- Animal cruelty
- Prescription fraud
- Child abuse
- Vehicle registration fraud
- Domestic violence
- DUI with injury
What is a Wobblette?
Some crimes are not quite serious enough to be charged as a misdemeanor but still more serious than a typical infraction, so they may be filed as either. These offenses are known as “wobblettes” and typically start as misdemeanors, but can be knocked down to infractions.
Some examples include:
If you have been accused of a misdemeanor or felony, contact a lawyer immediately. A skilled attorney like Peter M. Liss can evaluate your case, consider all possible defenses, and advise you of the right strategy for your specific situation. Please call (760) 643-4050 today to schedule a free consultation.