Like other states, California separates criminal offenses into several different categories. The broadest distinction is between misdemeanors, which are lesser offenses, and felonies, which are more serious.  Offenses may be further classified as violent or non-violent, as sexual offenses, or as offenses that are punishable through a treatment program, such as drug possession.  Some offenses are eligible for probation, in which the offender is supervised rather than incarcerated, while others are not.

All of these classifications can create confusion for defendants and their loved ones, particularly if the defendant has never been charged with a crime.  It’s never easy to face criminal allegations, but the more you and your family members understand about the charges, the better prepared you will be for the legal process ahead.

The criminal defense lawyers of Bamieh & De Smeth have prepared this basic guide in an effort to help defendants and their loved ones better understand California criminal charges – and the penalties they can carry.  If you have any questions at all about the charges against you or your loved one, no matter how minor, we urge you to call our law offices right away at (805) 643-5555 for a free and confidential consultation.  Our attorneys have more than 22 years of experience providing aggressive legal representation for defendants in the Ventura County area.

What’s the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony in CA? What Are the Penalties?

Misdemeanors and felonies share some similarities: both are criminal offenses, and both have the potential to result in a criminal record, costly fines, and incarceration.  However, there are also important differences between these criminal categories.

The greatest difference is that highly serious crimes are classified as felonies, while less serious crimes are classified as misdemeanors.  Because felonies are more serious, they also carry longer sentences and costlier fines than misdemeanors.  However, some crimes are classified as “wobblers,” meaning they can be charged as misdemeanors or felonies, depending on factors like the defendant’s criminal history and the nature of the offense.

Under Cal. Penal Code § 19, criminal penalties for a misdemeanor generally include a fine of up to $1,000 and/or a sentence of up to six months in a county jail.  However, certain misdemeanors may result in a jail sentence of up to one year and fines of up to $2,000, such as spousal battery (domestic violence) under Cal. Penal Code § 243(e)(1).
With regard to felony sentencing, Cal. Penal Code § 18(a) provides the following:

“Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed… every offense declared to be a felony is punishable by imprisonment for 16 months, or two or three years in the state prison…”
When “different punishment is prescribed,” the offender might face a term considerably longer than the maximum three years in state prison otherwise specified.  For example, a defendant convicted of first degree robbery might receive a sentence of up to six years, while a defendant convicted of murder can be imprisoned for life without the possibility of parole.  Additionally, a felony may result in fines of up to $10,000 under Cal. Penal Code § 666.5(a).

What is Probation? Which Criminal Offenses Are Eligible?

Probation is often confused with parole.  Parole describes early release from prison, whereas probation replaces incarceration.

In California, probation may be “formal” or “informal.”  If an offender is placed on formal probation, they will be required to register with the appropriate county’s Adult Probation Department, at which point they will be assigned a probation officer to whom they must periodically report.

Informal probation, which is sometimes called “court probation” or “summary probation,” does not impose these requirements.  However, individuals on informal probation are still required to follow state and federal laws.  Being arrested is a major probation violation, and can result in probation being discontinued or modified to be more restrictive.
If an offender is sentenced to probation for a misdemeanor, it will generally be informal probation.  Likewise, probation for felonies is typically formal.  Felony probation generally lasts three to five years, while misdemeanor probation is generally one to three years.

Rape, the continuous sexual abuse of a child, and various other sex crimes do not qualify for probation in California.  Probation will also be denied if the offender is convicted of a serious or violent felony while already on probation for a previous felony.  With some rare exceptions, probation will typically be denied if the offense involved factors including:

  • Using a weapon.
  • Causing “great bodily injury,” broadly defined under Cal. Penal Code § 12022.7(f) as “significant or substantial physical injury.”
  • Causing injury or death in the commission of a drive-by shooting.

Under California Rule of Court 4.414, criteria which will be considered in determining whether probation is appropriate include:

  • Whether the victim:
    • Suffered financial losses, and to what extent.
    • Was vulnerable.
    • Sustained physical injuries or psychological harm.
  • Whether the defendant:
    • Has had any prior issues complying with probationary rules.
    • Will pose a threat to public safety.
    • Expresses remorse.

Convicted offenders in California face devastating legal repercussions.  You could be heavily fined, deprived of precious rights and privileges, and even lose your freedom.  If you or one of your loved ones was arrested in Ventura County, it is crucial to retain the services of an experienced and knowledgeable defense attorney as soon as possible.  Call the Law Offices of Bamieh & De Smeth, PLC today at (805) 643-5555 to set up a free, completely confidential legal consultation.