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Criminal Offense In California
Criminal offenses in California are classified according to their seriousness. For crimes against property, the gravity of a crime is generally commensurate with the value of the property taken or damaged: the greater the property value, the more serious the crime. For crimes against persons, the same proportionality principle applies to bodily injury inflicted upon individuals: the greater the injury, the more serious the crime. However, a host of other factors can influence the seriousness of a criminal offense. These factors include whether the defendant had a prior criminal record; whether the defendant committed the crime with cruelty, malice, intent, or in reckless disregard of another person’s safety; and whether the victim was a member of a protected class (e.g., minors, minorities, senior citizens, the handicapped, etc.). Thus, a less serious crime can be made more serious by the presence of these additional factors, and a more serious crime can be made less serious by their absence.
Three categories of criminal offenses were known at common law, treason, felony, and misdemeanor, with treason being the most serious type of crime and misdemeanor being the least serious. The common law distinction between treason and felony was particularly important in England because a traitor’s lands were forfeited to the Crown. Under a doctrine known as “corruption of the blood,” the traitor also lost the right to inherit property from relatives, while the relatives lost the right to inherit from the traitor. U. S. law has never endorsed corruption of the blood as a criminal penalty, and so treason was dropped as a separate classification of crime in the colonies.
Today every U. S. jurisdiction retains the distinction between felony level criminal offenses and misdemeanor level offenses. However, most jurisdictions have added a third-tier of criminal offense, typically called an infraction or a petty offense. Although the definitions of all three classes differ from one jurisdiction to the next, they do share some common characteristics.
Felonies, Misdemeanors, and Infractions (Criminal Offense In California)
The power to define a crime and classify it as a felony, misdemeanor, or infraction rests solely with the legislature at the federal level (see U. S. v. Hudson, 7 Cranch 32, 11 U.S. 32, 3 L.Ed. 259 [U. S. 1812]). Federal courts do not have the power to punish any act that is not forbidden by federal statute. Most crimes made punishable by federal law are set forth in Title 18 U.S.C. sections 1 et seq.
In the eighteenth century U. S. courts possessed the power to define crimes and establish classifications for criminal offenses. These judicially-created offenses were known as common law crimes. By the early nineteenth century, federal common law crimes were under increasing attack as violating the mandate of the separation of powers established by the U. S. Constitution. Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to make law, while Article III gives the judiciary the power to interpret and apply it. Thus, the constitutionally limited role of federal courts precludes them from defining crimes or creating classifications for criminal offenses.
Most states have also abolished common law crimes. In these states the legislature is given the primary and often sole responsibility for defining illegal behavior (the executive branch in a few states plays a limited lawmaking function via executive orders and administrative agency rules and regulations). In the minority of states that still recognize common law crimes, judges generally are not permitted to create new common law crimes from the bench. Instead, all 50 states and the District of Columbia rely on their penal code to shape the nature and scope of their jurisdiction’s criminal laws, and when a penal code designates an offense as a felony, misdemeanor, or infraction, that designation is normally deemed conclusive by the courts.
Felonies are deemed the most serious class of offense throughout the United States. Many jurisdictions separate felonies into their own distinct classes so that a repeat offender convicted of committing a felony in a heinous fashion receives a more severe punishment than a first-time offender convicted of committing a felony in a comparatively less hateful, cruel, or injurious fashion. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the crime, felonies are generally punishable by a fine, imprisonment for more than a year, or both. At common law felonies were crimes that typically involved moral turpitude, or offenses that violated the moral standards of the community. Today many crimes classified as felonies are still considered offensive to the moral standards in most American communities. They include terrorism, treason, arson, murder, rape, robbery, burglary, and kidnapping, among others.
In many state penal codes a felony is defined not only by the length of incarceration but also by the place of incarceration. For example, crimes that are punishable by incarceration in a state prison are deemed felonies in a number of states, while crimes that are punishable only by incarceration in a local jail are deemed misdemeanors. For crimes that may be punishable by incarceration in either a local jail or a state prison, the crime will normally be classified according to where the defendant actually serves the sentence.
A misdemeanor, 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. Many jurisdictions separate misdemeanors into three classes: high or gross misdemeanors, ordinary misdemeanors, and petty misdemeanors. Petty misdemeanors usually contemplate a jail sentence of less than six months and a fine of $500 or less. The punishment prescribed for gross misdemeanors is greater than that prescribed for ordinary misdemeanors and less than that prescribed for felonies. Some states even define a gross misdemeanor as “any crime that is not a felony or a misdemeanor.” Legislatures sometimes use such broad definitions to provide prosecutors and judges with flexibility in charging and sentencing for criminal conduct that calls for a punishment combining a fine normally assessed for a misdemeanor and an incarceration period normally given for a felony.
An infraction, sometimes called a petty offense, is the violation of an administrative regulation, an ordinance, a municipal code, and, in some jurisdictions, a state or local traffic rule. In many states an infraction is not considered a criminal offense and thus not punishable by incarceration. Instead, such jurisdictions treat infractions as civil offenses. Even in jurisdictions that treat infractions as criminal offenses, incarceration is not usually contemplated as punishment, and when it is, confinement is limited to serving time in a local jail. Like misdemeanors, infractions are often defined in very broad language. For example, one state provides that any offense that is defined “without either designation as a felony or a misdemeanor or specification of the class or penalty is a petty offense.”
Implications of a Criminal Offense In California
The category under which a crime is classified can make a difference in both substantive and procedural criminal law. Substantive criminal law defines the elements of many crimes in reference to whether they were committed in furtherance of a felony. Burglary, for example, requires proof that the defendant broke into another person’s dwelling with the intent to commit a felony. If a defendant convinces a jury that he only had the intent to steal a misdemeanor’s worth of property after breaking into the victim’s home, the jury cannot return a conviction for burglary.
The substantive consequences for being convicted of a felony are also more far reaching than the consequences for other types of crimes. One convicted of a felony is disqualified from holding public office in many jurisdictions. Felons may also lose their right to vote or serve on a jury. In several states attorneys convicted of a felony lose their right to practice law. Misdemeanants with no felony record rarely face such serious consequences.
Criminal procedure sets forth different rules that govern courts, defendants, and law enforcement agents depending on the level of offense charged. The Fourth Amendment to the U. S Constitution allows police officers to make warrantless arrests of suspected felons in public areas so long as the arresting officer possesses probable cause that the suspect committed the crime. Officers may make warrantless arrests of suspected misdemeanants only if the crime is committed in the officer’s presence. Police officers do not have the authority to shoot an alleged misdemeanant while attempting to make an arrest, unless the shots are fired in self-defense. Officers generally have more authority to use deadly force when effectuating the arrest of a felon.
Most criminal courts have limited jurisdiction over the kinds of cases they can hear. A court with jurisdiction over only misdemeanors has no power to try a defendant charged with a felony. Defendants may be charged by information (i.e., a formal written instrument setting forth the criminal accusations against a defendant) when they are accused of a misdemeanor, whereas many jurisdictions require that defendants be charged by a grand jury when they are accused of a felony.
Defendants charged with capital felony offenses (i.e., offenses for which the death penalty might be imposed as a sentence) are entitled to have their cases heard by a jury of twelve persons who must unanimously agree as to the issue of guilt before returning a conviction. Defendants charged with non-capital felonies and misdemeanors may have their cases heard by as few as six jurors who, depending on the jurisdiction and the size of the jury actually impaneled, may return a conviction on a less than unanimous vote. The right to trial by jury is generally not afforded to defendants charged only with infractions or petty offenses. Defendants charged with felonies or misdemeanors that actually result in confinement to a jail or prison are entitled to the advice and representation of a court appointed counsel (see USCA.Const.Amend.6). Defendants charged with infractions or misdemeanors that do not result in incarceration are not entitled to court appointed counsel.
Accused felons must generally be present during their trials, while accused misdemeanants may agree to waive their right to be present. The testimony of defendants and witnesses may be impeached on the ground of a former felony conviction. But a misdemeanor is not considered sufficiently serious to be grounds for impeachment in most jurisdictions. Because of all the additional procedural safeguards afforded to defendants charged with more serious criminal offenses, defendants must usually consent to any prosecution effort to downgrade a criminal offense to a lower level at which fewer safeguards are offered.
What’s the Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor?
Most states break their crimes into two major groups: felonies and misdemeanors. Whether a crime falls into one category or the other depends on the potential punishment. If a law provides for imprisonment for longer than a year, it is usually considered a felony. If the potential punishment is for a year or less, then the crime is considered a misdemeanor.
In some states, certain crimes are described on the books as “wobblers,” which means that the prosecutor may charge the crime as either a misdemeanor (carrying less than a year’s jail time as punishment) or a felony (carrying a year or more).
Behaviors punishable only by fine are usually not considered crimes at all, but infractions — for example, traffic tickets. But a legislature may on occasion punish behavior only by a fine and still provide that it is a misdemeanor — such as possession of less than an ounce of marijuana for personal use in California.
If you have any questions about a criminal offense in California contact San Diego Criminal Defense Attorney Vik Monder at 619.405.0063 or visit San Diego Criminal Defense Attorney