Misdemeanors: How The Law Works In California

In this post, I will explain how misdemeanors work in California.

Let’s get started…

A misdemeanor offense in California is characterized by how much potential time you could serve incarcerated and where you would spend it.

What Is A Misdemeanor

Misdemeanors are criminal offenses that are less serious than felonies, though many do involve violence to some extent and even the death of another person.

California does not classify misdemeanors based on their seriousness but does have gross or aggravated misdemeanors where the penal code section will provide that the fine may be as high as $2000 and jail time up to one year.

Examples of Misdemeanors Include:

What Is A Gross Misdemeanor?

A “gross’ misdemeanor is punishable by time served of no more than

  • One year in county jail1.

though a number of less serious offenses or standard misdemenaors will specify jail time of no more than 6 months2.

The 3 Stages Of A Misdemeanor Criminal Court Process

There are three main stages in a misdemeanor criminal proceeding:


Misdemeanor Arraignment

You can be ticketed for a misdemeanor or even arrested, given a citation, and then released.

In most cases, there will be no bail.

The ticket or citation will give you a date for an arraignment in court.

Do I Have To Appear In Court For The Arraignment?

For many misdemeanors, your attorney can appear for you without you.

The charges against you are either read or waived and a plea of guilty, nolo contendre (no contest) or not guilty is entered.

What Happens If I Plead Guilty At Arraignment?

If you enter a guilty plea or nolo contendre, you will have to be present for sentencing.

What Is The Next Step If I Plead Not Guilty?

If not guilty, a pretrial proceeding is scheduled for 2 weeks or more in the future.

Should you be indigent, you may qualify for a public defender and one will be appointed for you at this hearing. Also, the DA will usually provide your attorney with a copy of the police report and of the charges or complaint against you.


Pretrial Hearing

The pretrial is where most misdemeanor charges are resolved with a plea bargain or agreement to reduce the charges or sentence or where the defendant enters a plea outright to all or some of the charges.

What Happens If A Plea Deal Is Not Made At Pre-Trial Hearing?

If a plea bargain or plea of guilty is not to be entered, the defense can request additional discovery from the prosecution or DA. The court can also schedule another pretrial hearing or set the matter for trial.

Is The Defendant Required To Be Present At Pre-Trail Hearing?

The defendant is not required to be present in most cases.


Misdemeanor Trial

You are entitled to a jury trial of 12 persons where the prosecution must find you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on all elements of the offense.

A guilty verdict must be unanimous. If not, it is considered a hung jury, and the prosecution has the option of retrying you.

Difference Between An Infraction, Misdemeanor & Felony

In California, violations of the law or local ordinances are classified as follows:

The charge depends on the nature of the violation, the ordinance or law that is broken and in some cases, the criminal record or history of the defendant.

What Are Infractions?

Infractions are not considered criminal offenses and do not appear on your public record unless it was for a traffic violation and then it will appear on your driving record.

Can You Go To Jail For An Infraction?

You cannot be sentenced to jail for an infraction and may only receive a fine of up to $250.

What Is An Example of An Infraction?

Examples of infractions Include:

  • Seat belt violation
  • Some speeding tickets
  • Failure to stop at a stop sign
  • Making an illegal turn
  • Disturbing the peace
  • Jaywalking

If you contest an infraction, you are only entitled to a court or bench trial where the judge is the sole trier of fact.

How Are Misdemeanors Different From Infractions?

Misdemeanors are criminal offenses for which you may be sentenced to county jail.

Whats Is The Difference Between Misdemeanors & Felonies?

Any crime for which a state prison sentence of more than one year may be imposed is a felony, though some felony sentences may be either served in a county jail facility or on probation with some time spent in county jail if at all.

Fines are up to $10,000.

The consequences of a felony conviction are far more onerous than for misdemeanors.

  • You may not own or possess firearms,
  • Will generally lose your professional license or not be eligible to obtain one,
  • May not serve on juries,
  • May not serve in the US military, in law enforcement, or
  • Receive public benefits in many cases.

What Are The Immigration Consequences?

If you are not a US citizen, there are felonies that are deportable offenses and generally include those involving firearms, controlled substances, violence or sexual misconduct among others.

Which Misdemeanors May Be Charged As Felonies?

There are certain misdemeanor crimes considered “wobblers” for which the prosecution or DA is given the discretion to charge as either a misdemeanor or a felony.

Why Are Some Cases Charged As Felonies Instead Of Misdemeanors?

Usually, there is some aggravating circumstance that will elevate or convince the DA to charge the defendant with a felony such as the following:

Examples of Misdemeanors That are Wobblers Include:

What Is The Maximum Penalty For A Misdemeanor That Is Considered A Wobbler?

No wobbler offense that is charged as a misdemeanor can have a sentence of more than one year in county jail.

If charged as a felony, most wobbler offenses have state prison or county jail sentences of no more than 3 years though there are some exceptions.

Can Felonies Be Reduced To Misdemeanors?

Even if you are charged with a felony under a wobbler, it can be reduced to a misdemeanor by plea agreement prior to trial or by the motion of the judge.

If convicted, the defendant can present a motion under Penal Code 17(b) to have the felony reduced to a misdemeanor provided the defendant served no time in state prison.

Penalties & Sentencing

The standard penalty for a misdemeanor is up to one year in county jail and/or a fine up to $1,000.

However, unless the code or statute provides otherwise, any offense deemed a misdemeanor will have county jail time of up to 6 months.

Some misdemeanors do have fines of up to $2,000 such as an assault against a health care provider under PC 241 or driving on a suspended license-VC 14601.1(a).

Many sentences provide for probation only and a fine and/or community service.

Depending on the nature of the offense, the court may also impose:

Expungement For Misdemeanors

Under PC 1203.4, you may petition the court to expunge most convictions for a misdemeanor.

You will want to seek an expungement since your conviction will not appear on a public database should anyone conduct a criminal background check, including landlords or private employers.

  • Find Out if You Are Eligible To Have Your Record Expunged
  • Stop Worrying About Employer Background Checks
  • Stop Worrying About Landlord Background Checks

You can apply for expungement the day after your probation ends. There is an exception in cases where no probation was imposed whereby you must wait one year from the date of your conviction.

If granted, you will receive an Order of Dismissal

Since most misdemeanors are eligible for expungement, a certificate of rehabilitation comes into play for those misdemeanor sex offenses that do not qualify for expungement. However, there are still some sex offenses, even if you are convicted of a misdemeanor, which are not eligible and may require a governors pardon.

Information On The Criminal Court Process

What You Should Do Now

If you have been arrested for a misdemeanor and would like to learn more about what attorneys charge.

If you want to understand why its important to have an attorney represent you.

If you are ready to discuss a pending misdemeanor case with an attorney contact the Aizman Law Firm at 818-351-9555 for a free confidential consultation.

Get Legal help

Request A Free Consultation 818-351-9555 


  1. California Penal Code 18.5(a) – Every offense which is prescribed by any law of the state to be punishable by imprisonment in a county jail up to or not exceeding one year shall be punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for a period not to exceed 364 days. This section shall apply retroactively, whether or not the case was final as of January 1, 2015. []
  2. California Penal Code 19 -Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both. []

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