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Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor

Posted in California Law,Criminal Defense on March 29, 2021

Two of the main words used when discussing criminal cases are “felony” and “misdemeanor.” These two words, though both refer to types of criminal charges a person can face, have vastly different meanings when it comes to understanding the possible penalties for a particular offense. Here, we want to discuss the basic difference between a felony and a misdemeanor offense in California. We will define both terms and discuss the difference between the types of penalties that they carry.

What is a felony?

In the state of California, a felony refers to a type of criminal offense that carries a maximum penalty of more than one year in jail or prison. Often, felony offenses can result in a person spending multiple years in state prison, and a person can even be sentenced who death.

What is defined as a misdemeanor?

A misdemeanor in California is a criminal offense that is less serious than a felony. In general, misdemeanors will result in a maximum penalty of less than one year in jail. In many circumstances, a person convicted of a misdemeanor will spend no time in jail at all, but will instead have to pay fines or serve a probation sentence.

Difference between the offenses and their penalties

Felonies in California are typically punishable by one of three terms: low term, middle term, or high term. There are various statutes in California law that set forth these terms very specifically, and they even state whether or not the time should be served in county jail or state prison. We will often find that the criminal statutes come with various terms associated with the possible punishments focus on the factors surrounding each particular instance.

For an example of how this may look, we can turn to first-degree burglary charges (California Penal Code 461(a) PC). This criminal offense could be punished by a state prison term of 2, 4, or 6 years depending on the facts related to the offense.

Some of the most common felony offenses in California include the following:

  • Assault
  • Robberies
  • Homicide
  • Rape
  • Kidnapping
  • Burglary
  • Motor vehicle theft
  • Drug arrests

The misdemeanors in California fall into two basic categories:

  1. Standard misdemeanor. These are typically punishable by up to six months in jail as well as a fine of $1,000.
  2. Gross or aggravated misdemeanor. These are typically punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 or more.

Some of the offenses that are commonly charged as misdemeanors in California include the following:

  • Prostitution
  • Shoplifting
  • Drug possession
  • Indecent exposure
  • Petty theft
  • Trespassing
  • Drunk in public
  • DUI without injury
  • Driving on a suspended license

We do want to point out that there are some offenses in California that are considered “wobblers.” A wobbler offense refers to a crime that can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the particular offense. Some of the most common wobbler offenses in California include:

  • Brandishing a weapon
  • Elder abuse
  • Assault with a deadly weapon

Regardless of the type of offense you are facing in California, it is crucial that you work with a skilled criminal defense attorney who can fully investigate the charges against you and vigorously defend you in court.