California Misdemeanor Crimes and Sentences

Learn how California classifies and punishes misdemeanor offenses.

By , Legal Editor
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 10/30/2023

In California, misdemeanors are crimes that carry the possibility of jail time and fines. Read on to learn how California classifies and penalizes misdemeanor offenses.

How California Classifies Misdemeanor Offenses

Unlike many other states, California doesn't divide misdemeanor offenses into classes or levels. Rather, each crime indicates a punishment in the law. The maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is 364 days' imprisonment. When reading the law, it won't necessarily say the crime is a misdemeanor. Rather, the law will provide a maximum penalty of six months or one year in county jail.

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.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 17, 18.5, 19, 19.2, 19.4 (2023).)

California Misdemeanor Crimes and Penalties

Below are examples of common misdemeanors and their penalties in California.

  • Simple assault is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
  • Simple battery carries a penalty of up to six months in jail and a $2,000 fine.
  • Petty theft or shoplifting of property worth $950 or less (other than a gun) is punishable by up to six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine.
  • Vandalism carries a maximum jail sentence of 364 days, with a maximum fine of anywhere between $1,000 and $50,000 depending on the amount of damage.
  • Rioting carries up to 364 days of jail time and a $1,000 fine.
  • Stalking is punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
  • Unlawful possession of certain drugs—such as cocaine, heroin, and meth—for personal use can be punished by up to 364 days in jail.

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. The law may also increase the penalty when a crime involves a protected employee or vulnerable individual, such as a police officer, first responder, or elderly victim.

(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 11350, 11377; Cal. Penal Code §§ 240, 241, 242, 243, 243.25, 405 459.5, 490, 490.2, 594, 646.9 (2023).)

How Do Wobblers Work in California?

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, 243.4, 245, 487, 489, 490.1, 502 (2023).)

Will a Misdemeanor Result in Jail Time in California?

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 repeat 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. These sentencing alternatives may allow a defendant to serve all or part of their sentence in the community rather than behind bars.

Getting Legal Assistance

If you're facing criminal charges in California, 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 for 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).

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