There are a wide variety of crimes that can be committed in California. Some are more severe than others. Still more are seen as trivial enough that they're not technically counted as crimes at all.
These relatively insignificant offenses are called infractions in the state of California. While they are the least severe of the offenses that can be committed in the state, they can still amount to significant legal trouble, especially if the context surrounding the offense and your criminal history lead prosecutors to pursue misdemeanor charges rather than just an infraction.
Having a skilled criminal defense attorney can be a huge help with defending against an infraction charge and keeping your record clean. Contact William Kroger Attorney at Law online for the legal help you need.
The Three Classes of Crimes in California
In California, there are three basic levels of criminal offenses. In decreasing order of severity, they are:
The defining characteristic of each one of these categories is how much time you can spend in jail if you get convicted:
- Felony convictions can come with more than a year in jail.
- Misdemeanor convictions can carry up to a year in jail, but no more.
- Infractions carry no jail time at all.
However, California criminal law also recognizes some gray areas in the spaces between misdemeanors and felonies and in between infractions and misdemeanors. In these areas, certain lower-level offenses can jump up in severity if you have a criminal background or the offense was particularly bad. For example, if you are cited for the infraction of speeding, but you have multiple speeding citations on your record and were going well above the speed limit, the prosecutor could choose to pursue your infraction as a misdemeanor. Cases like these are called wobblers because they seem to wobble between criminal classifications.
Infractions in California
An infraction is a California offense that cannot lead to jail time. It is often reserved for traffic violations and mildly indecent behavior, including:
- Making a U-turn where unsafe to do so
- Driving without wearing a seatbelt
- Disturbing the peace.
More severe offenses are typically reserved for misdemeanor or felony-level offenses, which can involve crimes of violence, like assault and battery, or property crimes like theft.
Infractions, on the other hand, are generally victimless crimes where you could have put others in danger, but nothing bad happened. While the law frowns upon these types of actions, it does not punish them as severely because, after all, there were no injuries.
Common Infractions in California
Some infractions are more common than others. Here are a small handful of the most commonly seen infractions in the state of California, with most of them coming from the Vehicle Code, rather than the Penal Code:
- Exhibition of speed. California Vehicle Code 23109 prohibits racing on the streets of the state. The statute outlaws a “motor vehicle speed contest on a highway,” unless that contest takes more than 20 minutes and the “racers” do not exceed the speed limit. This infraction can also be pursued as a misdemeanor.
- Speeding. While exhibition of speed outlaws racing, California Vehicle Code 22350 is the state's “basic” speeding law and prohibits driving over the posted speed limit on a road or “at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent,” taking into consideration the road conditions, weather, and visibility. Importantly, multiple and egregious violations of Vehicle Code 22350 can lead to fines of up to $1,000 and a license suspension.
- Failure to appear for a traffic violation. While many infractions come from violating the traffic code, so to is failing to appear in court for one of those infractions. California Vehicle Code 40508 makes this failure a “wobbler,” allowing prosecutors to pursue a misdemeanor charge with your permission.
- Failure to stop for a school bus. Not stopping while a school bus is loading or dismissing children, while the bus' mechanical arm and stop sign is extended and its lights are flashing, is an infraction under California Vehicle Code 22454.
- Failure to yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian. California Vehicle Code 21950 makes it an infraction to refuse to yield your right-of-way to a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk when you are a driver. This prohibition also applies if the pedestrian was in an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.
- Passing on a double yellow line. Another common infraction is California Vehicle Code 21460. This statute requires drivers to keep on the right side of a road that has a double yellow line on it. This prohibits drivers from crossing the double yellow median, whether negligently or in an attempt to pass another vehicle.
- Littering. One of the infractions that is not written in California's Vehicle Code is littering. California Penal Code 374.4 prohibits the “discarding, dropping, or scattering of small quantities of waste matter ordinarily carried on or about the person” in public places. You can also receive an infraction for littering on your own property if it “creates a public health and safety hazard, a public nuisance, or a fire hazard.”
Penalties for Infractions in California
While infractions are the least severe of the three types of crimes you can be accused of committing in California, they are still not trivial to face. Under California Penal Code 19.8, unless a particular infraction has an expressed maximum of a different amount – like in the case of speeding – infractions can come with fines of up to $250. They can also add points to your driving record if they are motor vehicle-related.
However, you can't be put in jail for an infraction, will not have to go through probation, if you get convicted for an infraction, and will not have a blemish on your criminal record for committing an infraction.
When Infractions “Wobble” into Misdemeanors
In some cases, though, prosecutors have the discretion to pursue misdemeanor charges for what would otherwise be an infraction. These cases arise if you have an appropriate criminal background or if the facts surrounding your infraction citation warrant harsher action.
Only some infractions can wobble into misdemeanors, though. These include:
- Driving without a license under California Vehicle Code 12500
- Driving with a suspended or revoked license under California Vehicle Code 14601.1
- Exhibition of speed under California Vehicle Code 23109
- Selling a product to obscure a license plate under California Vehicle Code 5201.1
- Selling, offering to sell, or installing components for a non-regulation exhaust system under California Vehicle Code 27150.1
- Failure to appear in court on a traffic violation under California Vehicle Code 40508.
You Have to Consent to a Wobbler
An important part of California's infraction law is that, even in the cases where prosecutors want to pursue a misdemeanor charge against you, rather than an infraction, you have to explicitly consent to the heightened charge. California Penal Code 17(d) only allows infractions to “wobble” into misdemeanors if you, the person accused of the infraction, permit it.
This decision needs to happen at your arraignment: If you tell the judge during your arraignment that you want the case to proceed as a misdemeanor, then that's how it will proceed.
Why You May Want to Face a Misdemeanor Rather than an Infraction
The penalties that you can face for a misdemeanor conviction are significantly higher than they are for an infraction: not only are the fines steeper, but you could face up to a year behind bars if you're found guilty. With harsher penalties, many people wonder why they would ever consent to be charged with a misdemeanor, rather than just an infraction. However, there are some good reasons to consider it.
Precisely because infractions come with light penalties, they are not considered severe enough to trigger some of your constitutional rights. When you are cited for an infraction, you do not have a right to a lawyer even if you are unable to afford one. Additionally, you do not have a right to a jury trial. Instead, if you continue your case at the infraction level, you will be funneled into traffic court where, along with hundreds of others, you will have to defend yourself on your own and try to convince a judge that you are innocent. Unfortunately, the judge hearing your case has likely already heard the same argument you will make, often dozens of times that day alone.
By consenting to a misdemeanor charge, you elevate your case out of this level and into the real courtroom. There, you have a right to a lawyer to defend you and a right to have a jury hear your case -– getting professional help to advocate on your behalf and securing an audience that is bound to be more sympathetic than a judge who has heard it all before.
Therefore, if you are convinced of your innocence, these can be solid reasons for choosing to defend against a misdemeanor rather than just an infraction.
However, even if you are less sure that you are innocent of the charges that you are facing, there are still situations where it might be wise to face a misdemeanor, rather than an infraction. Misdemeanor convictions come with more jail time than infractions do, but carry less in fines. If you are facing other charges, as well, and have been held in jail pending trial, a conviction for a misdemeanor might not add much more time behind bars. Coupled with a lower fine, this might be in your interests. Talking about it with a lawyer can help you decide what is right, for you.
The Risks of Permitting a Wobbler to Become a Misdemeanor
Of course, there are risks involved with letting the prosecution go after a misdemeanor-level sanction for an infraction-level offense.
The most obvious is that the penalties that you would face, should you end up being convicted, will be more severe. Misdemeanors in California tend to carry up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. If you let the prosecution wobble your offense over the line and into a misdemeanor so you can better defend your case, and then you lose in trial, you can expect harsher penalties.
Another problem with allowing your infraction citation turn into a charge of a misdemeanor is that the legal proceedings will be far more formal, complex, expensive, and stressful. Defending against an infraction charge involves only a quick visit to traffic court to deal with a proceeding. While your arguments in your defense are far less likely to be heard in an infraction proceeding, the ordeal is over quickly. Elevating your charge to a misdemeanor will draw the proceedings out for months.
Finally, while being found guilty of an infraction does not put a blemish on your criminal history, a conviction for a misdemeanor does. This can make it more difficult for you to find a job, rent an apartment, or pursue your dreams in the future. Particularly damaging in the highly competitive job markets of today, admitting to a misdemeanor offense in your past – even a minor one that is deep in your past – can be enough for an employer to skip to the next job applicant. Not disclosing a misdemeanor can be worse: even if you do end up being hired, lying on a job application is frequently a fireable offense.
Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney William S. Kroger
William S. Kroger is a criminal defense attorney who represents the accused in Los Angeles and the surrounding region in California. No matter how severe the accusation, you can benefit from his knowledge and experience in the legal field, especially as you are juggling the decision about whether to permit the prosecution to pursue a misdemeanor offense for an infraction citation. The outcome of this decision can only protect your interests and your future if you make it with a full knowledge and understanding of the risks and benefits that come with your options.
Call William S. Kroger Attorney at Law today at (323) 655-5700 or contact him online for the legal help you need in this uncertain time.