In California, misdemeanors are crimes that carry punishment of up to 364 days in county jail and/or a fine. But some crimes can be treated either as felonies or misdemeanors, and still others may be either misdemeanors or infractions (which lead only to fines). Read on for details.
Usually, the laws related to specific misdemeanor crimes say what the punishment should be. But for any misdemeanors that don’t state the punishment in the statute, the maximum penalty is six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 19, 19.4 (2019).)
When One Year in Jail for a Misdemeanor Means 364 Days
Whenever a criminal statute sets the punishment for a misdemeanor as up to one year in county jail, California law says that the actual penalty is no more than 364 days in jail. This law was intended to avoid harsh consequences under federal immigration law, which can lead to an immigrant’s deportation based on a conviction for a crime with a sentence of at least one year. Because the law applies retroactively (to anyone sentenced before 2015), people who’ve already served a year for a misdemeanor can apply to a California court for a sentence reduction, after the fact, to 364 days. (Cal. Penal Code § 18.5 (2019).)
Examples of common misdemeanors in California include:
Many misdemeanors may be punished as felonies when the defendant has a prior conviction for the same crime or for another type of serious or violent felony. (Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 11350, 11377; Cal. Penal Code §§ 240, 241, 242, 243, 244.5, 459.5, 490, 490.2 (2019).)
How Much Time Would You Actually Spend in Jail for a Misdemeanor?
Sentencing laws can be complicated. Misdemeanors generally come with maximum jail sentences, but a few statutes also require a minimum amount of time in jail (such as for a second-offense DUI). Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll actually have to spend that time behind bars if you’re convicted. Many different factors can affect actual jail time, including credits for good behavior while in custody and jail-alternative work programs. Also, punishment can take different forms, including sentencing alternatives such as probation, house arrest, community service, and restitution.
Many crimes in California—commonly known as “wobblers”—may be either misdemeanors or felonies. For instance, someone who hacks into a computer or a computer system in order to extort someone or steal data can be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor. Some other wobblers include theft of property worth more than $950, assault with a deadly weapon, and sexual battery against an unconscious victim.
The prosecutor can decide whether to charge a wobbler as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances. But a judge may reduce a felony charge to a misdemeanor by imposing the misdemeanor sentence or declaring it as a misdemeanor when granting probation—or even at some point after probation was granted.
In addition to misdemeanor/felony wobblers, some crimes may be treated as either infractions or misdemeanors, such as theft of property worth less than $50 when the defendant doesn’t have a previous theft-related conviction. (Cal. Penal Code §§ 17, 487, 489, 490.1, 502 (2019).)
If you’re facing criminal charges in California, you should speak with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney can explain how the law applies to your situation—including when a crime that’s normally a misdemeanor could lead to felony charges because of your criminal history—and help you get the best possible outcome to your case, which might include a favorable plea bargain if that's appropriate.
And if you’ve already been convicted of a crime, you may want to speak to a lawyer about requesting a dismissal to clear your criminal record or seeking to have a felony reduced to a misdemeanor (if the crime was a wobbler or was changed from a felony to a misdemeanor under California’s Proposition 47).
Look Out for Changes in the Law
California frequently changes its criminal laws, but you can check the current statutes by using the state legislature’s code search tool. Court decisions may also affect how the laws are applied and interpreted—another good reason to speak with a lawyer if you’re worried about actual or potential criminal charges.