Under California law, the crime of sexual battery (commonly known as “sexual assault”) is a serious offense. The penalties for sexually assaulting another person are sometimes classified as a misdemeanor offense in California, but other times the offense does arise to the level of a felony. The California sexual offense lawyers at the Law Offices of Bamieh and De Smeth explain this offense and how it is classified in California. For help with your case, contact our law offices today to schedule a free, confidential legal consultation.

Can Sexual Battery Be a Felony in CA?

California’s Penal Code is filled with offenses commonly called “wobblers.” These offenses are sometimes classified as misdemeanors and sometimes classified as felonies. To understand these classifications, it is important to understand what “felony” and “misdemeanor” mean and when these “wobbler” offenses shift from one to the other.

Traditionally, a “misdemeanor” offense is one that is punished by a maximum of 1 year in jail. Note that these offenses are punished with jail time, meaning that you would spend time in a secure facility that holds both offenders convicted of a misdemeanor as well as individuals awaiting trial, meaning some of the other inmates may be innocent until proven guilty.

More serious crimes are charged as “felonies,” which are any crime punishable with over a year in prison. Note that these offenses include time in prison, which typically only houses individuals convicted of other felony offenses. It is also important to note that a felony is any crime with the potential of over a year in prison, meaning that the offense could ultimately allow for less than a year in actual punishment if the judge is lenient.

Sexual assault, codified as “sexual battery” under Penal Code 243.4, can be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances. At its core, the offense consists of sexually touching another person against their will for your or their “sexual gratification.” This statute does not give distinctions as to when the crime should be charged as a misdemeanor versus a felony, but it does give two options for penalties:

  • “imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, and … a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars ($2,000)”
  • “imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, and … a fine not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000)”

The first option sets the crime as a misdemeanor, whereas the second option sets it as a felony. In some cases, the penalties might be altered slightly; some subsections of the statute allow a reduced misdemeanor jail sentence of only 6 months, while others adjust the fine.

In many cases where the victim is a minor and the defendant is a repeat offender who commits sexual assault on a child, the misdemeanor option is blocked, and the crime must be charged as a felony with the potential of 2, 3, or 4 years in prison.

When is Sexual Assault a Felony vs. a Misdemeanor?

The decision of whether your offense will be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor rests with two parties involved in your trial: the prosecution and the judge. The prosecution has the discretion to charge you with a felony or a misdemeanor, but they must follow certain rules for being able to charge you with either. The judge can also decide at certain points in the trial whether the charge should be a misdemeanor or a felony – but again, certain procedures must be followed.

In any felony case in California, you are entitled to certain rights that might not attach in a misdemeanor hearing. The most important of these is the right to a preliminary hearing. California courts do not put on preliminary hearings for misdemeanor offenses. If you are going to be charged with a felony, you must be charged early enough to give you the right to challenge the charges at a preliminary hearing.

For a judge to order felony charges held over for trial, the prosecution must prove that there was probable cause to charge you with the crime, which is a very low standard compared to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard at trial. In fact, this probable cause standard is the same standard police need to arrest you in the first place. This means that the preliminary hearing may not be a strong defense, but it is still a necessary step in the process if you are to be charged with a felony.

In many cases, the prosecution or judge may be swayed by the evidence presented at a preliminary hearing to reduce your felony charge to a misdemeanor charge. This can occur at any time in the trial process, even as late as sentencing. However, prosecutors and judges should not be able to increase the charges later than the preliminary hearing, or else they need to go back and hold a prelim.

The main factors used in determining whether the crime should be a felony or a misdemeanor deal with the severity of the offense, the harm to the victim, cooperation with the police, willingness to admit to your offense, and future risk of re-offending, among other factors.

Call Our Defense Attorneys for Help With California Felony Sexual Assault Charges

If you were charged with sexual assault as a felony, or if you face other misdemeanor or felony charges in California, contact the Ventura criminal defense attorneys at the Law Offices of Bamieh and De Smeth today. Our criminal defense lawyers represent the accused and fight to get felonies reduced to misdemeanors and get charges dropped and dismissed. To schedule a free consultation on your case, contact our law offices today at (805) 643-5555.