What’s the Difference Between an Infraction, Misdemeanor, and Felony?
California Penal Code allows for three main categories of punishable offenses— an infraction, misdemeanor, and felony—as well as a fourth category called a “wobbler” which can be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances.
For those facing a conviction, the difference between an infraction, misdemeanor, and felony are significant. An infraction, the least serious offense, has less severe consequences than a misdemeanor or felony. A good criminal defense lawyer may be able to plea bargain your offense down to a less serious category, saving you from some of the long-term consequences of more serious crimes, such as a criminal record, jail time, and losing the right to vote.
To better understand the difference between the different types of crimes and how an Oakland defense attorney can help, it is useful to look at each category separately:
An infraction is the least serious offense. As such, infractions do not lead to jail time, probation, or create a criminal record. Most infractions are for violations of traffic laws, municipal codes, or administrative regulations. Common examples of infractions include speeding tickets, noise violations, and failing to keep your pet on a leash.
The punishment for infractions is usually a fine or, in the case of traffic violations, points on your driving record. You may also receive community service, depending on the violation. You will have the opportunity to appear before a judge on an appointed date and can present your case. Infractions do not, however, entitle you to a jury trial or court-appointed counsel.
Although infractions are the least serious offense, if you fail to pay the fine or appear in court, you may be charged with a misdemeanor.
A misdemeanor is more serious than an infraction but less serious than a felony. Many offenses fall into the misdemeanor category in California: vandalism, trespassing, and disorderly conduct are three examples. If you are charged with a misdemeanor, it will create a criminal record.
Misdemeanors carry different punishments, depending upon the seriousness of the offense. Generally, misdemeanors can carry up to a one-year jail sentence as well as a fine. There are also additional punishments such as registering as a sex offender or being unable to own a gun.
Because misdemeanors can result in jail time, you have the right to appear before a judge and to have a jury trial. In court your attorney will likely try to plea bargain your misdemeanor down to an infraction, helping you to avoid jail time, a criminal record, and other negatives that come with having a misdemeanor charge.
A felony is the most serious charge and, as such, carries the heaviest punishment. Generally, felonies can carry a year or longer jail sentence, as well as becoming a permanent part of your criminal record. More serious felonies, like murder, carry heavier penalties.
There are many ways a felony conviction can impact your future: your ability to obtain employment, housing, vote, or buy a firearm, are all adversely affected by a felony on your record. Because of the seriousness of the penalties, your attorney will attempt to plea bargain your charge down to a misdemeanor at the preliminary hearing before the trial.