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Misdemeanor vs. Felony in California – What’s the Difference? 2023


The California criminal justice system was established to uphold the criminal code and make sure that it is being properly adhered to by all Californians and people residing or visiting the state. While the criminal code was created in the state to ensure that individuals in California and their property are adequately protected, in some instances, these laws that were intended to protect can hurt those who are facing criminal charges.

To protect the rights of the individuals who are charged with these crimes, it’s important that they understand the charges that they are facing, what the subsequent potential penalties may be, and how to mount a legal defense against them. By understanding the difference between misdemeanor and felony charges, people facing the California criminal justice system can be better equipped to defend their rights and ensure fair treatment under the law.

A California Misdemeanor vs. Felony Crime

California law divides crimes into two categories: misdemeanors and felonies. Misdemeanor crimes are considered to be less serious than felonies and are characterized by not having a jail sentence of more than 1 year. A felony crime, on the other hand, can lead to more than 1 year in jail or prison.

There is also a stark difference in the maximum fine that you can receive in a felony versus a misdemeanor. A felony can result in a maximum fine of $10,000, but misdemeanor fines can only go up to $1,000.

Understanding different types of crimes, and which ones are felonies or misdemeanors, can help better support the overall understanding of the difference between the two. Some California misdemeanor crime examples include: 

  • Public intoxication
  • Public indecency
  • Trespassing
  • Loitering
  • Shoplifting items of smaller value
  • Petty theft
  • Vandalism of property to a minor degree

Felony crimes typically are associated with greater harm to the victim or victims involved and/or their property, and the types of damages can be financial, physical or emotional. Some examples of such crimes in California include: 

  • Certain violent crimes, such as burglary and murder.
  • Certain sex crimes, such as rape.
  • Certain drug crimes, such as the illegal sale or manufacturing of drugs.

The penalties associated with each case will be dependent on an individual’s criminal history, the severity of the crime, and the judge and prosecutor involved in the case.

Wobbler Crimes in California

Some crimes are not immediately classified as misdemeanors or felonies and are therefore known as “wobbler” offenses. The prosecutor will decide to classify a crime as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on whether the defendant has committed crimes in the past and the specific details of their current case. Brandishing a weapon or certain assault cases can be wobbler cases.

California Misdemeanor Penalties

Misdemeanor crimes in California can be further broken down into the categories of “standard” and “aggravated.” A standard misdemeanor can result in a maximum fine of $1,000 and a maximum sentence of 6 months in jail.

On the other hand, an aggravated misdemeanor can result in just under a year of jail time and $1,000 or more in fines. For misdemeanors, a judge may decide to sentence a defendant to probation instead of jail time.

California Felony Penalties

The maximum fine for a felony crime is $10,000. However, in some cases, the fines can exceed this amount. For some felony cases, it is also possible to receive life in prison or even the death sentence.

Usually, California statutes will dictate how long a defendant will go to jail or prison. In some cases, though, the presiding judge will make the decision based on case details and the criminal history of the defendant. The judge may also decide to order a probation sentence instead of mandatory jail or prison time.


Q: How Serious Is a California Misdemeanor?

A: A misdemeanor in California is considered to be less serious than a felony. However, this does not mean that being convicted for a misdemeanor does not have serious consequences. Individuals face up to a year of time in county jail and have to pay a maximum of $1,000. Having a misdemeanor on your criminal record can also prevent individuals from being able to pursue housing, career, and educational opportunities, and it can tarnish their reputation.

Q: Can I Reduce a California Felony to a Misdemeanor?

A: Some crimes under the California Penal Code are considered to be “wobblers,” which means that they can be categorized as either misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the severity of the crime committed. In some cases, a felony charge can be reduced to a misdemeanor by submitting a petition to the court and going to a hearing. A lawyer can help advise you on this process.

Q: Is It Possible to Get the Death Penalty in California?

A: In the state of California, it is technically possible to get sentenced to death under the penal code. However, no one has been sentenced to death in California since 2006. If you are facing criminal charges, and are unsure of what your potential penalties may be, it’s important to speak with a criminal defense attorney to fully understand the details of the charges against you.

Q: How Many California Misdemeanors Can Be Equal to a Felony?

A: In California, it is important to know that a misdemeanor crime is any crime that can result in a sentence of more than one year in jail or prison. While “wobbler” crimes can be classified as either a misdemeanor or felony based on their severity, it’s important to note that there is no amount of misdemeanor crimes that can add up to a felony.

Secure Strong California Legal Defense

Whether you are facing misdemeanor or felony criminal charges in California, it’s important to be aware of the potential implications of your charges and mount an aggressive defense. A criminal defense lawyer at Ernenwein & Mathes, LLP, can deliver the support and legal representation that you need to protect your rights and move forward with your life. Contact our office today.

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