Under the California Penal Code, there are three different levels of charges for criminal offenses – felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. There is also a fourth, hybrid, charge level, called a “wobbler” which can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances and the decision of the prosecuting agency.
There is a significant difference between the charge levels in California, and you should be aware of what those differences are. On the most basic note, an infraction is the lowest charge level of the three and has far less severe punishments than the other two charges. A good defense attorney will oftentimes be able to mitigate, or lower, the charges to a lesser charge, which can save you time, and money, and potentially even avoid jail time or the loss of your right to possess firearms or vote.
An infraction is the least severe form of criminal charge in California. Infractions have no possibility of jail time and leave only a minor blemish on your criminal record. In general, most infractions are traffic related offenses, violations of city municipal codes, or violations of other very minor laws and/or regulations.
Common examples of infractions include:
- Speeding tickets;
- Red light violations;
- Violations of noise ordinances; and
- Violations of other minor traffic laws and ordinances.
The most common punishment for infraction violations are fines. If the violation involves violation of traffic laws, the punishment may also include points on your DMV driving record, which may increase your insurance premiums.
It should be noted that you do not have the right to a jury trial if you are charged with an infraction. Furthermore, you can retain an attorney when you are charged with an infraction; however, you do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney for infraction offenses.
A misdemeanor carries a lower possible punishment than a felony but does include the possibility of jail time. Misdemeanors also do create a significant criminal record, which could lead to disqualification from employment, difficulties in finding housing, or extended periods of supervision through probation.
In California, generally, misdemeanors carry the potential for up to one-year in jail, extended probation periods, and fines. Some misdemeanor offenses may even carry more serious consequences such as requiring you to register as a sex offender or being unable to own or possess a firearm. Currently, approximately 40 different misdemeanor charges lead to a 10-year loss of your firearm rights. These charges include:
- Brandishing a weapon; and
- Criminal threats.
In misdemeanor cases, as a result of the possibility for the loss of your freedom due to the jail possibility, you are entitled to a jury trial and a court-appointed attorney if you are unable to afford an attorney. In many situations, a good criminal defense attorney will attempt to reduce misdemeanor charges to an infraction, which helps you in avoiding both jail time and a criminal record.
Felonies are the most serious types of criminal charges. In general, felonies will result in more than one-year in jail, a permanent blemish on your criminal record, and the loss of your ability to ever own or possess a firearm and your right to vote.
A felony conviction will almost definitely negatively impact your future in many ways, including your ability to find employment or housing, as well as your ability to exercise your liberties including the right to vote or the right to possess firearms. Conviction for a felony in California results in a lifetime ban on your right to possess firearms. This means, if you are convicted of a felony and later are caught in possession of a firearm, ammunition, or ammunition feeding devices (such as clips or magazines), you will face a new felony charge under California Penal Code § 29800.
A good criminal defense attorney may be able to help you to avoid jail time for a felony charge through securing a suspended sentence or reducing the charges down to a misdemeanor pursuant to negotiation with the prosecutor or by filing and successfully arguing a motion under California Penal Code § 17(b).
How Can an Attorney Help Me in a Criminal Case?
Hiring an attorney to represent you in any criminal case in California may be extremely beneficial to you. First, an experienced attorney can help you minimize the penalties for the charge(s), including avoiding jail time, minimizing other penalties such as classes or probation, and potentially even reducing or dismissing the charge itself. An experienced attorney also can help reduce your anxiety and worries about the process, as they can walk you through the entire process to ensure that you understand the possible penalties, how they plan to reduce those penalties, and what you can do to help yourself potentially reduce having a criminal record. Finally, an experienced attorney will zero in on what really matters when it comes to your case, oftentimes being able to find weaknesses in the District Attorney’s case and using those weaknesses to secure you a better result.
Vincent S. Hughes is an experienced criminal defense attorney located in San Bernardino, California who can help you to understand the criminal process, how to minimize the effects of a conviction on both your employment records and criminal record, and how to potentially save you both money and jail time by taking early steps to mitigate the consequences of your charged offense.
Authored By: Vincent S. Hughes, Esq.