What Are the Classifications of Crimes in California?

The California Penal Code (CPC) Sections 15 & 16 gives us our basic definition and classifications of crimes.

CPC 15: A crime or public offense is an act committed or omitted in violation of a law forbidding or commanding it, and to which is annexed, upon conviction, either of the following punishments:

1. Death; 2. Imprisonment; 3. Fine; 4. Removal from office; or, 5. Disqualification to keep up and enjoy any office of honor, trust, or profit in this State.

CPC 16: Crimes and public offenses include: 1. Felonies; 2. Misdemeanors; and 3. Infractions.

The classifications of crimes are according to their severity. The classification influences both the substance and procedure of a criminal charge, so it is basic to understand the differences between them. The most serious crimes are felonies. Minor charges may be misdemeanors and the mildest crimes are known as infractions.

Felonies

Felonies are deemed the most serious class of offense throughout the California. A felony is a serious crime that can be punished by death or imprisonment in a state prison. Many felony offenses are straight felonies. A “straight” felony is one that can only be charged and sentenced as a felony. Straight felonies include some of the most harsh California crimes. Examples include:

  • Possession for sale of a controlled substance
  • Murder
  • Robbery
  • Rape

Misdemeanors

A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that is less serious than a felony and more serious than an infraction, is generally punishable by a fine or incarceration in a local jail, or both. Standard California misdemeanors are offenses that are punishable by a maximum six-month county jail sentence and a maximum $1,000 fine. Examples of shared standard misdemeanors include:

  • Petty theft
  • Being “drunk in public.”

Certain misdemeanor offenses carry harsher penalties. They are “aggravated misdemeanors.” When this is the case, the county jail sentence may increase to a maximum of one year and the fines may also increase. Examples of these “aggravated” misdemeanors include:

  • Driving under the Influence
  • Domestic battery
  • Driving on a suspended license

Infractions

An infraction is a minor offense. Most infractions are written on a “ticket” form but infractions can also be filed by the prosecutor on a “complaint” document. An infraction is usually punishable by a fine and if the fine is paid, there is no jail time. Examples of infractions include:

  • Speeding
  • Overdue parking meters
  • Not using turn signals
  • Parking in a handicapped zone without authorization

The criminal justice system can be intimidating and already frightening if you don’t understand the laws, rules and procedures that govern it. In our Legal Blogs, we hope to offer you an introduction to the concepts that shape the criminal justice system and tips for how to navigate it.

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