What am I charged with? That is the first question any individual would ask who enters the criminal justice system. This article gives an overview of California's Penal Code structure as it relates to Infractions, Misdemeanors, Felonies, and Strikes. Additionally, it covers the concept "wobblers" where the same charge can result in different levels of punishment. This short article is not a substitute for a more complete analysis of a case's particular facts and what may or may not result. However, it will arm the reader with some basic background necessary to discuss the issues with a qualified criminal defense attorney.
Infractions are low level crimes that are not punishable by imprisonment in county jail. However, there may be fines and court costs. One area that sets Infractions apart for higher level crimes is the loss of a trial by jury. You are entitled to a "bench trial," with the aid of a private attorney, where a judge hears your case, not a jury. Certain low level misdemeanor offenses can be reduced to an infraction depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the particular act. One particular example is California Penal Code Section 415, Disturbing the Peace, which can be charged as either a misdemeanor or as an infraction. This charging scheme is referred as "wobblers," inasmuch as they can be charged at different levels, either infractions or misdemeanors.
Misdemeanors may be punishable generally by a maximum fine of $1000, except certain classes of crimes such as domestic violence, and a county jail term up to one year. Misdemeanor convictions can result in a probation term. At the misdemeanor level the probation is termed informal. You don't have to report to a probation officer. If probation is granted, then the court may require you to perform certain terms of probation, such as attend AA or NA meetings, perform community service or labor, and attend specific classes.
Felony level criminal conduct is subject to punishment that may include a term of state prison confinement greater than 1 year and up to life, and may include a sentence of death. Additionally, the court may impose substantial fines. Common examples of felony crimes are murder, assault with a deadly weapon, possession of drugs both for personal use and sales, high level thefts, robbery and sexual misconduct such as rape and child molestation. If probation is granted under a felony, then it would be termed "formal probation." Probation Officers supervise people subject to formal probation. Individuals are required to "report" to their probation offices as required. Felony convictions result in the loss of certain civil rights, such as voting and the right to bear arms.
As with infractions and misdemeanors, felonies and misdemeanors have "wobblers," which can be charged either as a misdemeanor or felony. An example would be California Penal Code Section 273.5, Domestic Violence with Injury. Therefore, the same charge may have either a county jail term of up to a year or a state prison term greater than 1 year. The prosecutor has the discretion in charging and takes into account prior criminal conduct and the severity of the current conduct. Sometimes a case begins as a felony, but is then "wobbled" down to a misdemeanor by the court, under a process contained in California Penal Code Section 17(b), or is reduced to a misdemeanor as part of a negotiated plea agreement.
California has a class of crimes that include a "strike" which are "violent felonies" and "serious felonies." Individuals can accumulate more than one strike in a single case. "Strikes" affect sentencing terms. A "Strike" can trigger a "Three Strike" life sentence. One example of a strike and a "wobblers" would be Penal Code Section 422, Criminal Threats. Additionally, Juvenile convictions can count as strikes, as well as, out of state convictions. Conclusion The California Penal Code covers conduct from the lowest level, such as making too much noise as an infraction, to the highest level, such as First Degree Murder with a sentence of death. The same Penal Code section can result in substantially different sentences depending on whether it is charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony. Additionally, certain classes of crimes involve "strikes' which lengthen prisons and may result in a "life term" when the third "strike is reached. For additional information consult an experienced criminal law practitioner in your area.