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  • Writer's pictureBlair Goss

What Is a Misdemeanor in California? | A Comprehensive Guide

When an offender commits a crime in California, law enforcement officials will categorize the offense based on its severity.

In that regard, misdemeanor offenses in are considered to be more serious offenses than infractions but less serious crimes compared to felony charges. However, California law is not as simple as that when it comes to dealing with any sort of criminal charges.

Certain factors of the crime, such as the offender having a criminal record or being identified as a repeat offender, may upgrade simple misdemeanor offenses into felony crimes that carry severe penalties.

This is why most misdemeanor crimes in California, even those that seem to be minor offenses, must be handled by an experienced criminal defense attorney. Misdemeanor convictions can have a lasting impact on a person's life and should be handled with care.

In Sacramento, CA, Goss Law has a long-standing reputation as one of the top law firms to help arrested offenders fight their misdemeanor charges in court.

When facing criminal charges, offenders can call +1 916-999-7689 to speak to a reliable and experienced criminal defense lawyer. They can give more help for how to expunge misdemeanor california.

What Is a Misdemeanor in California Law?

What Is a Misdemeanor in California Law?

The law in California defines a misdemeanor offense as a crime that is punishable by the payment of fines, community service, probation, or imprisonment in a county jail or state prison according to the judge's discretion.

To shed more light on what a misdemeanor is in California, the following are a few examples of common misdemeanors:

  • Drug possession

  • Embezzlement and forgery

  • Trespassing under certain conditions

  • Public intoxication and disorderly conduct

  • Various weapons offenses

  • Shoplifting

  • Domestic violence

  • Vandalism

  • Receipt of stolen goods

  • Reckless driving under the influence

  • Simple assault

  • Indecent exposure (first-time offenders)

  • Prostitution

  • Disturbing the peace

  • Petty theft

In the absence of aggravating or mitigating factors, the above offenses are classified as standard misdemeanor crimes.

However, under certain conditions, these crimes can be upgraded to more serious offenses, called gross or aggravated misdemeanor charges, such as:

  • Domestic battery

  • Violation of a restraining order

  • Drunk driving without injury

  • Driving on a suspended driver’s license

Regardless of the type of misdemeanor conviction being faced, repeat offenders risk being slapped with severe penalties, even for minor offenses, such as petty theft.

Three Classes of Misdemeanor Offenses

Under California criminal law, a misdemeanor crime usually falls under three categories that are divided into the following classes:

Class A Misdemeanor

A Class A misdemeanor conviction usually carries a maximum penalty of up to one year or less in county jail or state prison, but more than six months of incarceration.

One example of such a case is a criminal offense involving assault and significant injury of a victim that does not qualify as a felony crime.

Class B Misdemeanor

A Class B misdemeanor conviction is less serious than a Class A conviction and carries a maximum penalty of up to six months of county jail time or state prison time. However, the period of incarceration has to be more than 30 days.

Being caught trespassing on private property is a great example of what constitutes a Class B misdemeanor in California.

Class C Misdemeanor

The least serious of all classes of misdemeanor convictions under California law is a Class C misdemeanor. This is usually punishable by up to 30 days in jail but more than five days of incarceration.

If a person is found to be drunk or under the influence of drugs while in a public place to such an extent that they may be considered dangerous to themselves or others, they can be arrested for a Class C misdemeanor offense.

Misdemeanors Vs. Felony Charges in California

The main difference between misdemeanor convictions and felony crimes is the period of incarceration the offender faces if they plead guilty or are found guilty of the offense by a judge or jury.

Unlike a petty theft conviction, which is considered to be a misdemeanor, serious crimes, such as rape, robbery, or carjacking, are classified as felonies and will carry significant penalties that include more than one year of prison time.

In serious cases, a felony conviction can result in the offender getting a death sentence, which is never the case for a misdemeanor conviction.

Severity of a Misdemeanor - The California “Wobbler” Offense

There is often a gray area when it comes to drawing the line between what can be considered a misdemeanor crime and what constitutes a felony. This gives rise to what are known as California's "wobbler" offenses.

A wobbler is usually defined as a criminal offense that can be categorized as either a misdemeanor or a felony. In most cases, the prosecution's case hinges on the defendant's criminal history and various other facts of the case.

Dealing with, for example, a case of domestic violence in which the defendant already has a criminal record can result in significant jail time if such a wobbler case is tried as a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

In California, the huge difference in jail time that felony criminals can face compared to misdemeanor offenders makes it very important to hire a good criminal defense lawyer when facing a wobbler case.

While the ultimate goal for any reliable criminal defense lawyer will be to get a misdemeanor charge dropped, having a serious crime reduced from a felony charge to a misdemeanor is also considered a massive win.

The following are common misdemeanors in California that are wobblers because of the potential of being upgraded to felony charges:

  • Criminal threats

  • Elder abuse

  • Forgery

  • Statutory rape

  • Brandishing a weapon

  • Assault with a deadly weapon

What Is the Process After a Misdemeanor Arrest?

When being charged with a misdemeanor, such as disorderly conduct or domestic violence, the steps that the accused takes soon after being arrested are important in determining the eventual outcome of the case.

In many cases, accused individuals may feel pressured by law enforcement officials to plead guilty under the threat of serving jail time for their misdemeanor charge.

However, it is important to always remember that a good lawyer can fight the case regardless of the severity of the charges. They can also answer questions such as how long does a misdemeanor warrant last in california?

Knowing the process from being arrested for a misdemeanor to being given a criminal conviction can help the accused make the right decisions in such cases.

In California, misdemeanor cases usually go through the following steps:

  • Arrest by the police or other law enforcement officials

  • Formal charging and plea (arraignment)

  • Bail hearing

  • A pretrial phase covering the discovery and motions to dismiss or exclude pieces of evidence

  • Jury or bench trial

  • Appeal of the misdemeanor conviction

A misdemeanor case does not always have to go through each of these stages, however. The need to reduce the backlog of cases and court costs usually leaves a lot of room for a good attorney to try to get the charges dropped at any time.

Examples of such cases are when the prosecution has weak evidence to support the misdemeanor charge or when the court grants the defendant's motion to suppress evidence. The case can also be dropped according to the prosecutor's discretion if they feel they do not have enough to pursue criminal convictions.

Consequences of a Misdemeanor Conviction

While an experienced Sacramento misdemeanor attorney will always fight tooth and nail to get a misdemeanor case dropped, a good number of these charges do make it to court and the result is often some type of criminal penalties being imposed on the offender.

Depending on the class of the misdemeanor conviction, the severity of the offense, the need for victim restitution, and the defendant's criminal history, the following are some of the common consequences of being found guilty of a misdemeanor by the California legal system:


Most misdemeanor crimes, such as disorderly conduct, carry fines as a part of the penalties imposed on the offender.

The amount that the offender will be ordered to pay varies based on the specific circumstances surrounding the case and the jurisdiction. Under California criminal law, a misdemeanor charge is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.

Community Service

In some cases, a misdemeanor conviction can carry the possibility of community service depending on various factors of the case. The number of hours that the offender will have to serve depends on the jurisdiction and severity of the offense.

Usually, a judge will order community service as a way for the accused to make amends for what they have done by giving back to the community. Such punishments can also be imposed as conditions for the offender's probation.


If found guilty of a misdemeanor, probation is another form of punishment that can be imposed. Probation for a misdemeanor conviction is usually set for a specific period which can last anywhere from three to five years.

During the period of probation for a misdemeanor crime, the offender must comply with a wide range of strict terms and conditions, such as completing a certain number of community service hours/tasks, paying restitution to the victims, and participating in mandatory counseling sessions.

Incarceration in County Jail

In the worst-case scenario, a misdemeanor charge can be punishable by incarceration in county jail or state prison depending on the specific California penal code that applies to the crime. However, most misdemeanors in California do not result in significant jail time, and if they do, it is usually in a county jail rather than a state correctional facility.

The jail time the offender faces ranges from a few days to many months behind bars. Having a criminal record and other specific circumstances surrounding the offense can have a significant impact on the jail time the offender will have to serve.

Can a Conviction Lead to Deportation?

When dealing with the consequences of a misdemeanor conviction, one of the things many immigrants worry about is whether this will lead to their deportation from the country.

The good news for most visa and green card holders in the US is that the majority of misdemeanor crimes do not result in automatic deportation unless they include domestic violence, the use of firearms, or drug possession/abuse.

Immigrants are subject to deportation if they are found guilty of moral turpitude or a crime that carries a penalty of more than one year in prison within five years of arriving in the country.

Since all misdemeanor crimes are punishable by up to 364 days in jail (which is less than a year), being found guilty of any misdemeanor cannot in itself lead to the deportation of the offender.

How Long Does a Misdemeanor Stay on the Offender's Record?

Having a criminal record weighing them down for the rest of their lives is a fear shared by anyone who goes through the American legal system. In cases of misdemeanor convictions, the offender will have a criminal record if they plead guilty, no contest, or are found guilty after a criminal trial.

The length of time that a misdemeanor conviction will stay on the offender's record varies based on the statute of limitation in a particular state or jurisdiction.

Also, state laws, the policies of the reporting agencies or employers, and the type of background check that is conducted will determine whether a misdemeanor conviction will show up on the search.

In many cases, misdemeanor convictions will continue to show up on the offender's record for up to 10 years.

However, while some offenses may disappear after just five years, certain serious crimes, such as those involving violence or sex offenses may be subject to permanent disclosure on background checks or at least have longer reporting periods.

How to Expunge a Misdemeanor Conviction

A criminal record, even for a relatively minor misdemeanor in California, can have a lasting or even life-long impact on the offender's life. Consequences include:

  • Being shunned by the community

  • Difficulties securing employment or financial loans

  • Exclusion from certain types of housing

  • Limited educational opportunities

  • International travel restrictions

  • Loss of the right to own a firearm

As such, it can be crucial to find ways to expedite the expungement of a misdemeanor criminal record in California. If the misdemeanor does not involve a sex crime against a child, the offender's criminal record can be expunged.

The best way to avoid having a record for a misdemeanor charge in California is to make use of one of the diversion programs that will allow the judge to dismiss the charges without a lasting criminal record against the offender.

If the criminal record is already in place, it can be expunged if the offender has completed their misdemeanor probation, and is not currently being charged with a misdemeanor in California.

Once expungement has been completed, the offender will no longer be lawfully required to disclose their expunged conviction in a job interview or application.

What to Do When Arrested for a Misdemeanor Offense

When facing a misdemeanor charge in California, the offender needs to remember to stay calm and remain silent. Anything that is said to the arresting officers can and will be used against the offender in court.

As such, it is important to not give any statements without legal representation. Soon after the arrest, the offender should take the following steps:

  • Contact a good criminal defense lawyer

  • Gather as much information as possible while at the arrest scene

  • Understand their constitutional rights

  • Appear in court on the appointed date for the hearing

Why the Accused Needs a Good Lawyer

Why the Accused Needs a Good Lawyer

Any type of criminal charge in California can have serious consequences for the accused if they do not have help launching a strong legal defense. California misdemeanors carry a maximum sentence of up to a year in prison, which is a long time to serve for something as minor as a DUI offense.

In such cases, a good lawyer helps the accused in many ways, such as:

Plea Bargain - A plea bargain will allow the offender to negotiate with the prosecutor and plead guilty to a lesser crime for a lighter sentence.

Pre-file Intervention - The attorney will investigate the misdemeanor charge before the prosecutor files formal charges. With a proper investigation, the charges can be dropped without the need to go to court.

Downgrading Felony Convictions - A criminal defense attorney can argue to have felony charges reduced to misdemeanors in California, meaning the accused will not serve more than 364 days in jail regardless of the outcome of the case.

Expungement of Criminal Record - If the accused is found guilty, the attorney will fight to have their criminal record expunged to enable them to find work, obtain a professional license, apply for bank loans, etc.

Goss Law - An Impressive Misdemeanor Defense Track Record

Thanks to in-depth knowledge of the California penal code and a strong legal defense team, Goss Law has cultivated a reputation as one of the go-to law firms in Sacramento and surrounding areas.

Anyone facing criminal charges in California, even ones as serious as those for aggravated misdemeanor offenses, has the right to be defended in court. They can visit the Goss Law office in Sacramento and ask for a free consultation with one of the state's top-rated lawyers.


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