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Felony, Infractions and Misdemeanors in California

The California justice system divides criminal violations into three broad categories based on the severity of the crime: infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. These offenses are characterized by different penalties, as defined under the California penal code. In California, criminal offenses are tried on the basis of this categorization.

What is a Felony in California?

Felonies are the most severe type of crimes in California. Crimes in this category are punishable by imprisonment or death in compliance with state laws ( Cal. Pen. Code § 17). Crimes and state violations that do not fall in this category are either misdemeanors or infractions. While most states organize felonies into degrees or classes, the state of California sets specific penalties for different crimes.

A felony conviction can lead to low, mid, or high prison terms depending on the defendant’s criminal record, the seriousness of the crime, the existence of any aggravating or mitigating circumstance. For instance, defendants have a higher chance of a low-to-mid jail term if the judge finds that they played a minor role during the crime, were provoked, suffered from a mental condition, or were cautious to ensure no one was harmed. On the other hand, crimes that involved a child or crimes that resulted in serious bodily harm are more likely to result in mid to high prison terms. In addition to imprisonment, felony convictions may also include fines and probation after incarceration.

What are some examples of felonies in California?

Some examples of crimes that are categorized as straight felonies in California include:

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Vehicular manslaughter
  • Lewd act with a minor
  • Kidnapping
  • Grand theft
  • Assault with a firearm
  • Assault with a deadly weapon
  • Gross Vehicular manslaughter

California’s penal code also includes a wide range of offenses that qualify as wobbler felonies. Wobblers are prosecutable crimes that classify as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Some examples of these include:

  • Fraud crimes
  • Sexual battery
  • Forgery
  • Assault with a stun gun or Taser
  • Violating a domestic violence protective order
  • Assault with a deadly weapon that isn’t a firearm
  • Discharging a firearm at an unoccupied vehicle

Can I get a Felony Removed from a Court Record in California?

Individuals who have been convicted of a felony may be able to obtain an expungement by submitting a petition to the court as provided under the CA Penal Code 1203.4 PC. If the petition is approved, the court will either:

  • Set aside the guilty verdict if the defendant has already been convicted after pleading not guilty
  • Permit the defendant to withdraw his plea of “no-contest” or guilty and enter a plea of not guilty

In addition to this, the court will proceed to dismiss the accusations made against the defendant. This action releases the defendant of all the disabilities and penalties resulting from the offense (such as being unable to obtain a professional license).

Is expungement the same as sealing court records in California?

Expungements aren’t the same thing as sealing records in California. While sealed records are protected from public view, expunged records still fall under the public record umbrella, which means they can be accessed by licensing agencies and other general employers. The process for sealing records also varies from expunctions. Records can only be sealed and destroyed in California in situations where:

  • The case was dismissed
  • The conviction was overturned or dismissed following an appeal
  • The subject was arrested but never charged and the statute of limitations has run out
  • The subject was acquitted of all charges

Records that are considered public may be accessible from some third-party websites. These websites often make searching simpler, as they are not limited by geographic location, and search engines on these sites may help when starting a search for a specific or multiple records. To begin using such a search engine on a third-party or government website, interested parties usually must provide:

  • The name of the person involved in the record, unless said person is a juvenile
  • The location or assumed location of the record or person involved. This includes information such as the city, county, or state that person resides in or was accused in.

Third-party sites are independent from government sources, and are not sponsored by these government agencies. Because of this, record availability on third-party sites may vary.

What are Misdemeanors in California?

Misdemeanors in California are offenses that carry a penalty of up to a year (364 days) in jail and/or a fine (Cal. Pen. Code § 19). Misdemeanors are less severe than felonies but more serious than infractions. While some states organize misdemeanors into multiple classes, the state of California divides misdemeanors into two general categories: Standard and Gross misdemeanors.

  • Standard Misdemeanors refer to offenses punishable by up to 6 months in jail, or/and a fine of up to $1000
  • Gross Misdemeanors (also known as aggravated misdemeanors) are more serious offenses that are punishable by up to 364 days in jail, or/and a fine of up to $1000

California also has wobbler offenses—a category of crimes that qualify as either a misdemeanor or an infraction (for lighter standard misdemeanors) or a misdemeanor or felony (for more serious aggravated misdemeanors).

What are Examples of Misdemeanors in California?

Examples of misdemeanors in California include:

  • Shoplifting (value less than $950)
  • Domestic violence
  • Reckless driving
  • Public drunkenness
  • Driving on a suspended license
  • Driving while under the influence
  • Possession of drugs for recreational use (cocaine, marijuana, and meth)
  • Examples of wobbler misdemeanor offenses in California include:
  • Child Abuse
  • Assault with a deadly weapon
  • Embezzlement
  • DUI with an injury

Unlike most states, which provide penalties for a category of offenses, California’s penal code defines the punishment for most misdemeanors. In cases where the state statutes do not provide penalties, the courts may impose a maximum penalty of up to $1000 in fines and/or six months in jail. Being convicted of a misdemeanor can have several serious implications, one of which is the inclusion of the offense in the subject’s criminal court record. Misdemeanors result in a criminal record if:

  • The defendant is found guilty after a trial
  • The defendant opts to plead guilty
  • The defendant pleads no contest “nolo contendere”

Can I Get a Misdemeanor Removed from a Record in California?

California law permits the dismissal of most misdemeanor offenses. In order to be eligible for a dismissal, the defendant must not be currently charged with any crime or serving a criminal sentence. A petition for dismissal can only be submitted after the defendant has successfully completed his/her prison term as well as other probation terms. Some crimes can never be expunged or removed from the record. For instance, California law does not permit the dismissal of cases where defendants were convicted of serious sex offenses, such as copulation or sodomy with a child.

Can a DUI Record Be Expunged in California?

California law permits the expunction of DUI convictions for only misdemeanor cases. Having a DUI expunged seals the record from public view.* It also means that affected persons can legally answer “No” when asked if they have ever been convicted of a DUI. Drivers must meet several eligibility requirements before applying for an expungement some of which include:

  • Subjects must have completed the terms of their probation
  • Applicants must not have severed any state prison time
  • Applicants must not have committed another offense (felony or misdemeanor)
  • A period of one year has passed from the conviction date (for drivers not placed on probation)

Affected persons must submit a petition to the court to initiate the process. While the length varies across different counties, the process of getting a DUI expunged typically takes an average of 6 to 12 weeks.

*Note: Expunged DUI records are still accessible by law enforcement agencies and the California DMV

What is an Infraction in California?

Infractions (also known as petty offenses) are minor violations of California state law. Compared to felonies and misdemeanors, infractions are the lightest offenses and attract the least severe penalties. Infractions are technically not considered to be crimes and are therefore not punishable by imprisonment or probation (Cal. Pen. Code § 19.6). Instead, individuals found guilty of committing infractions face the risk of paying a fine or being tasked with community service. Infractions that involve violations of traffic code may lead to added points on a driving record. Infractions may also include violations of city code or municipal ordinance.

Some infractions qualify as “wobbler offenses.” These violations are chargeable as either infractions or misdemeanors, depending on the prosecutor, the offender’s criminal history, and other details of the case. For instance, the state may opt to pursue a misdemeanor charge in a situation where a subject who already has multiple traffic infractions on his/her record breaks the speed limit law.

What are some examples of Infractions in California?

Some common examples of infractions include:

  • Speeding ticket
  • Violating seatbelt laws
  • Littering
  • Walking a dog without a lease
  • Noise violation
  • Making an illegal U-turn
  • Operating a vehicle over the allowed weight limit
  • Fishing without a license
  • Boat violations
  • Attempting to consume alcohol under the age of 21

Note: Individuals who fail to show up for an infraction hearing in court (or offenders who fail to pay an infraction) fine may incur a misdemeanor charge.

Can Infractions be Expunged from a California Criminal Court Record?

The California justice system does not provide true expunction. Instead, it provides avenues for case dismissals, as allowed under the California penal code (section 1203.4). Having an offense dismissed means that the court withdraws a previous guilty verdict and releases the subject of all charges. It also allows affected persons to legally state that they have not been convicted of a crime while seeking general employment (government jobs not included). Examples of infractions that can be dismissed in California include:

  • Disturbing the peace
  • Petty theft
  • Drug possession (marijuana)

To be eligible for a dismissal, affected persons must have paid their fines and completed all the requirements of probation or community service. Petitions for dismissals are only permitted after a minimum period of one year from the conviction date. Not all infractions are eligible for dismissals. For instance, dismissals do not extend to

  • Any infractions defined under the California Vehicle Code (Section 42001)
  • Individuals guilty of a second infraction occurring within a year of a prior infraction
  • Persons guilty of committing third or more infractions within a year of two or more prior infractions

*Employers in law enforcement and health facilities still have access to dismissed convictions.

Note: Since cases aren’t truly expunged, most files and records of dismissed court cases remain accessible under California public record laws.

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