Have you ever wondered about the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony? Are you or someone you know in a situation forcing you to understand the distinction? If so, read on.
California defines a “Crime” or “Public Offense” as an act committed or omitted in violation of a law forbidding or commanding it which can be punished upon conviction with either death, imprisonment, fine, removal from office or disqualification to hold any office of honor, trust or profit in California.
Most states, including California, classify crimes into three categories, infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. This categorization determines how the court system treats each case. It is imperative to understand the differences. As a general rule, however, these crimes are differentiated by how much potential jail time (if any) an offender could face.
Infractions are the least serious type of crime and typically referred to as a public offense. Ordinarily, a police officer will see someone doing something wrong, write a ticket and hand it to the person. The ticket will include a court date and the fine to be imposed. Since infractions involve little to no time in court (much less jail time) and a fine, they are often handled by magistrates in municipal courts and a jury trial is not available. Although infractions are labeled as a minor offenses, if they are ignored or left unpaid, the fines imposed and potential penalties can escalate quickly.
Misdemeanors are punishable by more substantial fines and sometimes jail time, usually less than one year. Any jail term would most likely be served in a local or county jail, rather than a state or federal correctional institution. Like the infraction, misdemeanors are usually adjudicated in a shorter period of time. However, misdemeanors do qualify for a jury trial, depending on the type of misdemeanor alleged.
While a misdemeanor charge may not seem serious to you, they can turn into a nightmare. Some states, California being one of them, have alternative misdemeanor/felony crimes known as wobblers. A wobbler is a crime that can be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor based on the circumstances. A wobbler can also be charged as a felony but reduced to a misdemeanor by the sentencing court pursuant to a statute. Which is why you should consider the help of a qualified criminal defense attorney to protect your rights, even at the misdemeanor stage. If you can’t afford one, you have the right to a court-appointed lawyer. So speak up, if you want an attorney.
Felonies are the most serious type of crime. In some States Felonies are classified by degrees, with a first degree felony being the most serious. Many states require that a prosecutor obtain an indictment from a grand jury before charging someone with a felony. In California, a felony charge may be brought in one of two ways, through a direct filing through the District Attorney’s Office, which is followed up by a preliminary hearing to determine if there are enough facts to proceed with the matter (very low standard), or a grand jury proceeding. Felonies are punishable by substantial fines and prison sentences in can be in excess of one year. If you are convicted of a felony, you may be required to serve your jail time in a state or federal correctional institution. The court must provide an accused person with an attorney if he or she cannot afford one. Trial by jury is also available for a felony prosecution. Other constitutional rights such as the right to a speedy trial are also involved when a person is charged as well.
High fines and longer jail time are not the only disadvantages that felony convictions bring with them. In some states, persons convicted of felonies cannot serve on juries, purchase or possess firearms, and may not be employed in certain professions, such as law, teaching, or the military.
Dealing with criminal charges can be a complicated, overwhelming, and frightening experience. We understand and are here to help. If you or anyone you know have been charged with a crime and don’t know what to do, contact us here.