If you have been or are about to be charged with a criminal offense and need to consult a criminal defense attorney, it would be helpful to first get an overview of the categories of crimes. There are three categories: infractions, misdemeanors and felonies. Although each state has its own unique criminal code defining its crimes, general definitions apply across all jurisdictions.
Infractions: The word infraction literally means “breaking a rule.” This is the least serious offense and often not even thought of as a criminal offense. An infraction usually involves a violation of a traffic law such as speeding or violation of a local ordinance, such as operating a business with an improper license. The penalties may include fines, but never jail time. Often, if you are willing to pay the fine, you do not even need to go to court.
Misdemeanors: The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony is often defined by the proscribed punishment for the offense. If the offense carries a sentence of 12 months or less in the county jail, it is a misdemeanor, not a felony. The seriousness of the offense and whether it is determined to be a misdemeanor or a felony depends on the gravity of the crime. Punching someone in their arm may be a misdemeanor whereas hitting a person in the head with a frying pan would be a felony. The accused’s criminal history is another factor that is used to determine whether a crime will be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. In some cases, a criminal defense attorney can negotiate with the prosecutor and have a felony reduced to a misdemeanor. In California, a criminal offense that can be charged either as a misdemeanor or a felony is referred to as a ‘wobbler.’ The prosecutor decides whether to charge a wobbler as a felony or a misdemeanor using a few of the factors mentioned above.
Felony: This is the most serious category of crime. If you are charged with a felony, you will need the assistance of a criminal defense lawyer. Crimes like murder, kidnapping, armed robbery and rape are felonies. These classified as serious and violet felonies in California and constitute strike violations under the California 3-strikes laws. Money laundering and drug dealing are non-violent felonies that still carry serious penalties. However, criminal conduct that is much less serious than these may also be charged as a felony. For example, 4th DUI within a 10 year period will typically be charged as a felony. Also, the possession of any usable quantity of narcotics (no matter how small) is a felony.
People can be charged with a felony if they aid and abet someone in the commission of a crime, conspire with someone to commit a crime or assist someone to avoid prosecution when they know that person has committed a crime.
Felonies are punishable by incarceration int he state prison. While state prison is a possibility, many people convicted of a felony may enter into a plea deal whereby the state prison sentence is suspended and the person never goes to state prison. In these circumstances, the person may serve a local jail sentence and/or be placed on probation. In California, the lowest state prison sentence is typically 16 months. The most severe penalties are life in prison, life in prison without the possibility of parole, or even the death penalty in some states. Under certain circumstances, the death penalty may be imposed in California. In addition to prison time, a person convicted of a felony may also be required to pay a fine or restitution to the crime victim.