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Understanding the Key Differences between Misdemeanor and Felonies

by Busines Newswire
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When facing criminal charges, one of the first things you’ll want to know is whether it’s a misdemeanor or a felony offense. The classification matters because it determines how serious the crime is viewed in the eyes of the law and the punishment that could follow from a conviction.

Let’s break down the central differences between felonies and misdemeanors in California criminal law so you understand these key classifications. We’ll also look at some examples so you can get a feel for what common offenses fall into each category.

Defining Felonies and Misdemeanors

Felonies represent the highest level of crime in the California justice system. If convicted, felonies carry sentences served in state or federal prison and fines of $1,000 or more. Prison time can range from 16 months to life depending on the severity of the felony and aggravating factors involved.

Some examples of felonies include armed robbery, kidnapping, rape, first-degree murder, and grand theft. These serious crimes tend to involve physical violence or thefts of higher value items. Felonies can also include instances like repeated drunk driving offenses or distribution of dangerous drugs.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have misdemeanors as the least serious type of criminal offense. These charges usually lead to shorter county jail sentences of less than one year if any incarceration at all. Other potential punishments can include community service, probation, or fines of less than $1,000.

Common misdemeanors include petty theft, simple assault, disorderly conduct, trespassing, minor drug possession charges, first offense DUIs, public intoxication, vandalism causing less than $400 in damage, and reckless driving with no injuries.

As you can see, misdemeanors represent less serious crimes that don’t typically involve harm to others. The punishments aim to deter future crimes without severely disrupting someone’s life like a lengthy prison sentence.

(Cal. Penal Code §§ 17, 18.5 (2023).)

Other Key Differences in Penalties and Rights

Beyond jail time and fines, felony and misdemeanor convictions can impact your rights and future in other ways you should be aware of:

  • Criminal Record: All misdemeanor and felony convictions become part of your permanent criminal record. However, sealing or expunging records is usually easier with misdemeanors.

  • Voting Rights: Felony convictions in California result in losing voting rights while incarcerated and on parole. Misdemeanors do not lead to voting loss.

  • Gun Ownership: Those convicted of felonies lose the right to own firearms in California permanently. Most misdemeanors will not cause you to lose gun ownership rights.

  • Public Benefits: Felony drug convictions can disqualify someone from public housing, government assistance programs, or federal student aid eligibility. Misdemeanors do not lead to a loss of public benefits.

  • Jury Duty and Public Office: As a rule of thumb, anyone convicted of a felony loses the right to serve on a jury or run for public office in California. Misdemeanor convictions do not result in these losses.

  • Social Stigma: Let’s face it, felony convictions carry more social stigma making issues like employment and housing more difficult. Misdemeanors certainly show up on background checks too but don’t tend to cause as much lost opportunity.

Crimes Can Often Be Charged as Misdemeanors or Felonies

Prosecutors have discretion on how to charge many offenses based on the specific circumstances. As a result, a given offense can sometimes be filed as either a misdemeanor or a felony. This offers prosecutors flexibility based on factors like:

  • The suspect’s criminal history
  • Use of a weapon
  • Value of property stolen
  • Injuries or harm caused
  • Aggravating circumstances

For example, an assault may be charged as a basic misdemeanor. But if a deadly weapon was used, it can become a felony assault charge. Thefts under $950 are misdemeanors, while thefts exceeding $950 become felonies potentially. And though first offense DUIs are usually misdemeanors, repeat offenses often face felony charges.

Because of the profound differences in how misdemeanor vs. felony convictions can impact lives, the severity of charges is paramount. An experienced criminal defense attorney can be invaluable in negotiating with prosecutors in California and striving for the least serious charges supported by the evidence. This can help avoid undue disruption from long incarceration when other rehabilitation alternatives may be better for society and the defendant.

Our Guidance If Facing Charges

Navigating criminal allegations is challenging enough without grasping precedents and penalties. Having an advocate with knowledge of criminal law and prosecutorial discretion can make all the difference. To discuss your unique situation after an arrest and options moving forward, contact The Nieves Law Firm for a free case review today. Our award-winning defense team has supported Oakland and Bay Area residents through every type of criminal allegation for over a decade. We’re here and happy to help you too.

Contact us for a free case review. Our award-winning attorneys draw on extensive courtroom experience to protect your rights and develop an optimal defense. We aim to achieve resolutions that avoid future barriers, like jail time or a felony conviction inhibiting jobs and housing.

Together we will ensure you fully understand the path forward to efficiently resolve the charges. Reach out to take the first step.