If you violate the law in California, you may be charged with one of three offenses: infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies. Of these three, only misdemeanors and felonies are considered crimes and can result in a criminal record.
Suppose you're accused of an offense designated as a wobbler or wobblette. In that case, the specific charges you'll face will largely depend on the context of the alleged crime, your intention, your prior criminal record, and other factors.
For crimes against property, the severity of the crime is often based on the value of the property taken. In other words, the greater the property value, the more serious the crime.
For crimes against people, the severity of the crime is often based on whether a bodily injury occurred and the level of injury. In other words, the greater the injury, the more serious the crime. Many factors can determine the severity of the criminal charges, such as a prior record and whether the victim was a minor or an elderly person.
Infractions are the least severe type of offense. Penalties for infractions generally include fines but do not result in jail time or a criminal record. Think of these as “citations” or “tickets."
Most infractions involve traffic violations such as speeding, running a red light, parking violations, crossing a double yellow line, etc. Other types of infractions in the state include, but are not limited to:
- Local municipal violations (e.g., walking a dog off-leash, no dog license, street weight limit violations, etc.),
- Violations of park/recreation rules,
- Fish and game violations (e.g., fishing without a license),
- Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana without proper authorization
Jaywalking used to be an infraction, but as of January 2023, jaywalking is now legal in California.
A “misdemeanor” is defined as a crime where the maximum sentence is no longer than one year in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Still, an aggravated misdemeanor carries a potentially more significant penalty.
Anybody convicted of a misdemeanor could be placed on probation for three to five years. In Los Angeles, misdemeanors can be filed by the City Attorney's Office or the District Attorney's Office based on where the crime occurred.
Misdemeanors are more serious than infractions but less serious than felonies. Common examples of misdemeanors include, but are not limited to:
- Simple assault,
- First-time DUI,
- Petty theft,
- Solicitation of prostitution,
- Domestic battery,
- Reckless driving,
- Indecent exposure,
- Public intoxication.
Misdemeanor penalties include fines, probation, community service, and up to one year in county jail.
In California, any crime for which you can be sentenced for over one year is considered a felony crime, which is the primary difference between misdemeanors.
A felony offense is the most severe and carries the possibility of serving time in state prison, hefty fines, probation, parole, and harsh collateral consequences.
Some crimes are "straight" felonies, meaning they can only be charged and sentenced as felonies and can't be reduced to a misdemeanor. These offenses are the most serious and will be considered a “strike” on your record.
Felonies represent the most serious category of criminal offenses. Examples include, but are not limited to:
Convictions for felonies can result in substantial fines, lengthy prison sentences, or even life imprisonment in severe cases. The most extreme versions of murder can even carry the death penalty, but at the time of this writing, there is currently a moratorium on capital punishment in the state.
The standard sentencing for a felony conviction in California includes serving time in a state or county jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Still, the judge can impose formal felony probation rather than imprisonment.
Felony offenses are typically punishable by one of three terms: low, middle, or high. Some criminal statutes dictate whether a sentence is served in a county jail or state prison.
“Wobblers” are a unique category of offenses that can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances. This flexibility allows prosecutors and judges to consider factors such as the severity of the offense, the defendant's criminal history, and the harm caused by the offense when determining the appropriate charge.
A few examples of wobbler offenses include:
- Vehicular manslaughter,
- Battery with serious bodily injury,
- Petty theft with prior convictions,
- Grand theft,
- Assault with a deadly weapon,
- Various types of fraud,
- DUI with prior convictions,
- Statutory rape,
- Child endangerment,
- Criminal threats.
There are also a few offenses in California that may be charged either as infractions or misdemeanors. While it's not an officially recognized legal term, these offenses are informally called “wobblettes,” including disturbing the peace, trespassing, driving with a suspended or revoked license, and failing to appear in court.
Determining How You Are Charged for Wobbler Offenses
The prosecutor plays a pivotal role in determining whether a wobbler is charged with a felony or misdemeanor. They will review the case details, examine the evidence, and consider a wide range of factors, including:
- The severity of the offense itself,
- Your criminal history,
- Your age, background, and personal circumstances,
- The impact on the victim,
- Other aggravating and mitigating factors.
For example, suppose you are accused of assault with a deadly weapon. If the offense was committed without significant harm to the victim or you have no prior criminal history, it may be charged as a misdemeanor.
However, if the assault resulted in serious injury to the victim or you have prior convictions, the prosecution will more likely charge it as a felony.
After the prosecutor files charges, the judge also has some say in how you are ultimately charged. For example, they can reduce a felony to a misdemeanor during the preliminary hearing if they are convinced lesser charges are more appropriate. Judges also have discretion in sentencing based on factors such as the defendant's remorse, the likelihood of reoffending, and the impact of the crime on the victim and community.
The Role of a Defense Attorney in How You Are Charged
Wobbler offenses give a skilled California criminal defense attorney some leverage to negotiate early in the process as to what charges you will ultimately face. They can negotiate with prosecutors at many points during the pre-trial phase, but most commonly, they will seek a reduction of charges in one of two ways:
- At the preliminary hearing: Your attorney may plead for a wobbler to be charged as a misdemeanor rather than a felony by presenting mitigating evidence such as your background, lack of prior convictions, extenuating circumstances, etc.
- During plea bargaining: If your attorney negotiates a plea agreement, they may convince the prosecutor to reduce a felony to a misdemeanor in exchange for a guilty plea. This happens most commonly in situations where you might be facing multiple charges.
Contact us for more information. Eisner Gorin LLP is based in Los Angeles, CA.