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Infractions, Misdemeanors, Felonies, and Wobblers

As an Oakland Police Officer in the Academy, we learned the definitions of crimes. We also learned that the classification of a crime as an infraction, misdemeanor, felony, or wobbler is based on the maximum punishment allowed for that criminal act. All crimes are crimes against the State of California.

Infractions are defined as crimes where the maximum penalty is a fine. Some examples are speeding, running a red light, not wearing a seatbelt, making an illegal U-turn, fishing without a license, or violation of a city or county ordinance (such as Alameda Municipal Code 7-3.8 which requires dogs to be on a leash). Because infractions cannot lead to jail time, or even probation, defendants facing infractions do not have a right to a jury trial.

Misdemeanor crimes can be punished with fines AND up to one year in the county jail. Some vehicle violations that are misdemeanors are: driving under the influence (DUI), reckless driving, driving on a license suspended for DUI, hit and run, and driving over 100 mph. Some non-vehicle misdemeanors include petty theft, domestic violence, and vandalism less than $400. Some misdemeanors are capped at less than one year in jail, but if the punishment permits jail at all, and is limited to one year or less, it is a misdemeanor.

Felonies are the remaining crimes; crimes which can be punished with more than a one-year sentence. Some felonies are served in state prison, while others are served in county jail.

Wobblers are crimes which may be charged as either of two or more different classifications. For instance: there are crimes that wobble between infractions and misdemeanors, and crimes that wobble between misdemeanors and felonies. Some crimes against the State of California can even be an infraction, misdemeanor, a wobbler, or straight felony. For example, littering can be an infraction (PC 374.3 & 374.4); a misdemeanor (PC 374.3(h), 374.5, & 374.7); a wobbler (PC 374.8); or a felony (PC 374.8). There are many crimes that are wobblers in California.

Penal Code 17d also gives courts the authority to reduce some misdemeanors to infractions, depending on the circumstances of each case.

Sometimes the District Attorney’s Office has complete discretion to charge a wobbler as a misdemeanor or a felony, and sometimes they do not. For instance:

  • Vandalism (PC 594) can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, but if the damage is $400 or less the vandalism is a misdemeanor; if the damage exceeds $400 the vandalism is a felony.
  • Theft of $950 or less is misdemeanor petty theft (PC 484); whereas theft of more than $950 is felony grand theft (PC 487).
  • Also hit and run, when it results in an injury to a person, is a felony (VC 20001); whereas, when it results only in damage to property (like a fence, or vehicle) is a misdemeanor (VC 20002).

In the above cases, it’s often fairly clear which classification of crime the allegation places the crime into. However, sometimes it’s not.

Domestic violence is most prone to this uncertainty. Misdemeanor domestic violence (PC 243(e)(1)) is “battery upon a spouse” (or other qualifying individual), whereas felony domestic violence (PC 273.5) is “inflicting corporal injury upon a spouse” (or another qualifying individual). The latter can be punished with a sentence of up to four years. Who decides what constitutes an “injury” and therefore which charge to file? The District Attorney’s Office does. For this reason, many people arrested for PC 243(e)(1) and/or PC 273.5 ultimately end up facing the alternative charge once the case has actually been reviewed by the District Attorney’s Office.

A "straight felony” is one that cannot be charged as, or reduced to, a misdemeanor -- and only charged and sentenced as a felony. Some examples include murder, rape, burglary, arson, kidnapping, and robbery.

Restitution – if there is damage done and the responsible person is convicted, whether it is a misdemeanor of a felony, the victim will be compensated by the convicted person in the form of restitution payments.

If you were arrested for a misdemeanor, a felony, or a wobbler in Dublin or within the surrounding area, please call our office and speak with one of our attorneys for a free consultation. Call Ivan O.B. Morse or Ryan L. Smith at Morse & Associates at (888) 865-0741 and discuss your case with them for a free consultation.