When you are arrested for an offense, you can eventually be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony based on different factors. There are significant differences between misdemeanor and felony-level crimes in California, and a case that starts as a felony can sometimes be lowered to a misdemeanor. Knowing the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony crime is essential, and what those differences mean for those facing charges.

California Generally Classifies Criminal Offenses into Two:

The California criminal justice system classifies criminal offenses into two— felonies and misdemeanors. This classification depends on the severity of the crime and applicable consequences.  Misdemeanors are the less severe offenses, while felony crimes are the most severe.

There are also certain crimes in California known as "wobblers." Wobblers are crimes that the prosecutor has the discretion to charge either as a misdemeanor or a felony based on the facts of the case and the defendant's criminal history. When you commit a wobbler offense, it is typical for the prosecution to try it as a felony to use as a bargaining chip with you and your lawyer. If you plead guilty to the misdemeanor level crime, the charge will be pled down to misdemeanor from felony, provided there are no aggravating factors.

The Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony

There are several differences between misdemeanor and felony offenses. The primary difference is felonies are more severe crimes, while misdemeanors are less serious. Generally, felonies are criminal charges involving child victims, sexual misconduct, the element of violence, and high values of stolen property. On the contrary, misdemeanor crimes are highly likely to be victimless offenses.

The Difference in Penalties

Another notable difference between misdemeanors and felonies is the consequences a defendant may face if convicted. Misdemeanor convictions are punished by a maximum sentence of a year in county jail, fines, or both. In contrast, the possible punishment for felony convictions is more than a year in federal or state prison and fines, although low-level felony sentences are served in county jails.

Based on the offense being prosecuted, felonies may also subject the defendant to the death penalty or life imprisonment. Fines for misdemeanor crimes are capped at one thousand dollars, while the fines for felony offenses can be ten thousand dollars or more. The incarceration period and the difference in the significance of the fines reflect the concept that felonies are more severe offenses than misdemeanors. 

At times, prison or jail terms for felony offenses are dictated by state laws. Other times, judges will decide cases based on the facts surrounding the specific case and the accused's criminal record. An alternative to a lengthy incarceration period, a judge may sentence a felony offender to a felony or formal probation.

Like felony offenses, a judge can sentence a defendant to probation instead of incarceration if convicted of a misdemeanor. This kind of probation is known as summary/informal/misdemeanor probation. Summary probation is awarded instead of a county jail term.

In addition, the collateral consequences for felony and misdemeanor charges differ significantly, with felony convictions leading to difficulty securing employment, loans necessitating background checks or housing, loss of professional licenses, incapability to serve on a jury, and denial of child custody rights. A misdemeanor conviction will not subject the defendant to these severe repercussions, and the defendant may qualify for expungement.

Other punishments may apply to felony convictions, which do not apply to misdemeanor convictions. These include:

  • Restriction on the ability to possess/ own guns — technically, California felons are prohibited from purchasing or owning guns. This is stipulated under the state's ‘felon with a firearm' statute. In California, anyone found guilty of a felony is considered a felon.
  • Strikes on the defendant's criminal record—California state has a three-strikes law that applies to various violent felonies. You can obtain a strike on your criminal record if found guilty of any of the violent felony offenses. Strikes count against you if you face subsequent felony charges.
  • Immigration consequences, including the possibility of deportation and inadmissibility — we have some crimes that would subject a defendant to immigration consequences. These crimes are mainly felonies. Aggravated felonies, like murder, rape, and kidnapping, would subject the accused to immigration consequences like inadmissibility, deportation, and inability to receive asylum status in the United States. Misdemeanor convictions will rarely result in immigration consequences.
  • You may also be required to register as a sex offender - The requirement to register as a sex offender applies to both misdemeanor and felony sex offense convictions. If accused of a sex offense such as incest, child pornography, sodomy, oral copulation by force, or indecent exposure, you will be required to register as a sex offender. However, the registration requirement period for misdemeanor convictions is shorter than for felony sex offense convictions. For instance, for a misdemeanor conviction, you may be required to register as a sex offender for ten years, while for a felony conviction, you may be required to register for life.

Also, there are several other differences between misdemeanors and felonies in terms of penalties. The most significant include:

  • The probation term Probation terms for a felony conviction may differ from those of a misdemeanor conviction. For instance, in misdemeanor probation, the judge does not request a probation report from the county probation department, unlike in felony probation (an exception is misdemeanor cases involving sex offenses). Another difference is there is no probation officer for misdemeanor probation. Instead, offenders regularly return to court to report their progress to a judge.
  • The bail amount the judge will set— the bail amount for misdemeanor charges is lower than that of a felony charge.
  • Whether the crime can be expunged from the accused's criminal record
  • The potential legal requirement for any convicted felon to disclose their past felony convictions on their job application— except if the criminal record is sealed or expunged, some employers require that job applicants disclose it on their job application. If it is a record of a felony conviction, the applicant may have difficulty securing a job.

Every criminal case is unique since the criminal record will determine how the prosecution will pursue the punishable crimes.

Whether an offense is a misdemeanor or a felony is based on the governing criminal law. Virtually all criminal statutes specify if a crime is a felony or misdemeanor.

The penalty a convicted offender will eventually receive depends partly on mitigating or aggravating factors present in the case. Aggravating circumstances like causing significant bodily injury or victimizing a minor can lead to the imposition of a lengthier sentence. Mitigating circumstances like playing a minor role in committing the offense or being forced into committing the crime have the opposite effect on sentencing.

Apart from a defendant facing different consequences based on whether they have been charged with a felony or misdemeanor, they will also undergo different court processes and follow different rules for record sealing or expungement. Due to the devastating repercussions that may result from a misdemeanor or felony conviction, you want a skilled criminal defense lawyer to protect your legal and constitutional rights. You should consider building a lawyer-client relationship with a criminal defense lawyer from a reputable law firm.

Classification of Misdemeanors and Felonies

In California, misdemeanor crimes are classified into two— standard and gross or aggravated misdemeanors. Standard misdemeanors are punishable by a maximum of six months in county jail and a maximum fine of one thousand dollars. Common standard misdemeanor offenses include indecent exposure, drug possession, prostitution, petty theft, shoplifting, public intoxication, and trespassing. Gross or aggravated misdemeanors are punishable by a maximum of 364 days in county jail (a year minus a day) and a thousand dollars or more in fines. Common aggravated/gross misdemeanor offenses include DUI with no death or injury, domestic battery, driving on a suspended license, simple assault (no injuries or use of deadly weapons), and restraining/protective order violations.

Felonies are serious offenses that include but are not limited to rape, murder, kidnapping, the sale of a controlled substance, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, voluntary manslaughter, lewd acts with a minor, a DUI causing death, robbery, and burglary. Most states categorize felonies in various ways. For instance, we have states that classify felonies as class A, B, C, or D, while others categorize them as classes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, with A and 1 being the most severe, and D and six being the least severe respectively. Other states classify felonies according to degrees, that is, first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree.

Some states use combined lettering and numbering systems, whereas others have adopted their unique systems. California is among the states that do not use any kind of classification system whatsoever. Instead, every felony crime has its penalty.

It Is More Difficult to Expunge a Felony Than a Misdemeanor Conviction

An expungement per PC 1203.4 allows the accused to withdraw their plea of no contest or guilty and reenter a not guilty plea, which will lead to a dismissal of their case. An expungement releases a person from the many adverse consequences of a criminal conviction.

Some offenders can have their convictions expunged. You qualify for record expungement if you:

  • Successfully served your probation or jail sentence, whichever the judge imposed.
  • Do not face current charges for a different offense.
  • Did not serve any of your sentences in prison

Generally, expungements are not an option if a person serves prison time. Most felony convictions in California will result in prison time, meaning it is more challenging to have them expunged. This is especially true for straight felonies. However, expunging a felony conviction can be possible in some cases, as some felony convictions only result in jail time. Also, for wobbler felonies, you can expunge them after you have had the prosecutor reduce them to misdemeanors before a conviction. 

It is possible to seal criminal records related to a felony or misdemeanor charge, meaning that the info will no longer be available to the public and that previously convicted people will not have to disclose their criminal history.

A Misdemeanor Can Be Upgraded To A Felony

In California, misdemeanors can easily become felony charges. Without help from an experienced criminal defense attorney, your crime may be upgraded to a felony even when there is a chance for it to remain a misdemeanor. Aggravating circumstances that might upgrade a crime to a felony from a misdemeanor include, without limitation:

  • Injury or damage caused to a person or property
  • The type of victim involved— for instance, was it an older person, a pregnant woman, a child, or a police/peace officer?
  • Use of a deadly weapon such as a gun, knife, et cetera, in the commission of the crime
  • Other factors, such as impersonation, a severe criminal history, and defrauding a government official

Misdemeanor offenses that could be upgraded to felonies or felony crimes that may be downgraded to misdemeanors are collectively known as wobblers. In simple terms, wobbler crimes are those the prosecutor can charge either as a felony or misdemeanor based on the defendant's criminal history and the case facts, as mentioned earlier. Examples of wobbler crimes include:

  • Domestic Violence
  • Child endangerment
  • Criminal threats
  • Second-degree burglary
  • Most sex crimes
  • Forgery
  • Grand theft
  • Vandalism
  • DUI causing injury
  • Embezzlement
  • Burglary
  • Child abuse
  • Assault with a deadly weapon

Any of these offenses would be prosecuted based on their severity and whether they were sex-related. All these crimes have their penalties as dictated in the sentencing guidelines. All these are penal code crimes that, if prosecuted as felonies, can be lowered to misdemeanors with the help of a skilled criminal defense lawyer.

A Felony Can Be Reduced To A Misdemeanor

As mentioned, a felony charge is more severe than a misdemeanor charge. However, sometimes felony charges can be lowered to misdemeanor-level charges. The first aspect to consider is whether or not the crime is deemed a wobbler and qualifies for a downgrade. After a preliminary hearing, a judge may reduce a felony offense to a misdemeanor crime.

A few of the usual ways to downgrade a felony to a misdemeanor include seeking a plea deal, finding mistakes in the prosecution's case, or exhibiting good conduct if sentenced to probation. 

Plea Bargain

A plea bargain is a deal you make with the prosecutor. A skilled criminal defense lawyer can assist you in navigating the plea bargaining process. They can analyze all the plea deals available in your felony case and help you. For example, they can negotiate for reduced charges in exchange for your accepting criminal liability for given charges. Agreeing to a plea deal allows defendants to lower their charges in several situations.

However, you should know that agreeing to a plea deal still requires you to enter a guilty plea. You simply agree to a less severe charge with lenient penalties. Without help from an experienced criminal defense attorney, your crime may remain a felony even if there is a chance for a downgrade.

Mistakes In Charges

Errors made during investigations or by the police could make a crime a felony, whereas, realistically, it is only a misdemeanor. A knowledgeable criminal defense attorney will investigate to establish the facts surrounding the offense. For example, an aggravated battery, which is ruled a felony, might not be considered a felony after all if the bodily injury the victim suffered does not satisfy the felony requirement.

A lack of evidence to defend a reduction of felony charges to misdemeanor charges means the prosecutor will continue with the original felony charges. This happens primarily among defendants with no experienced defense lawyers to defend and advise them. The judge will also take your reason for wanting your charges to be lowered into account and the facts surrounding your case. They will also examine whether you successfully served your probation sentence and complied with all the terms.

Note that some crimes cannot be lowered to misdemeanors. These are what we call straight felonies. They include, among others, murder, rape, terrorism, and mayhem. These crimes must be charged and penalized as felonies at all times. Similarly, felonies that end with a state prison sentence are unqualified to be lowered to misdemeanors under PC 17(b).

If a skilled criminal defense lawyer succeeds in having your felony charges reduced to misdemeanor charges, you should be thrilled. It is a great deal to evade a felony conviction. Your criminal record will not prevent you from securing employment, possessing a firearm, traveling around, renting an apartment, or pursuing your future educational goals. 

Find a Skilled San Jose Criminal Defense Lawyer Near Me

There are several differences between misdemeanors and felonies in California. Our knowledgeable attorneys at California Criminal Lawyer Group will inform you of the specific facts about these differences. Most importantly, you should know that a felony or misdemeanor conviction can negatively affect your life. If you have been charged with a felony or misdemeanor offense in San Jose, do not hesitate to talk to us. Our focus is on pursuing the best possible outcome available for each of our clients by having their charges lowered if a dismissal is not possible so that they can face their future with confidence.

Call us at 408-622-0204 for a cost-free consultation and to learn more about how we can pursue the most favorable outcome for your unique circumstances.