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What's the Difference Between Felonies and Misdemeanors?

Posted by Terry A. Wapner | Mar 25, 2014 | 0 Comments

Most people have a fairly good idea about misdemeanors and felonies. It's a fairly basic idea: felonies are for the more severe crimes and an individual is charged with a misdemeanor for a less serious type of offense. However, it gets a little murky when you get into the details involved with felonies and misdemeanors.

Generally, felonies will involve some type of physical harm (or the threat of it). But, keep in mind that physical harm is not mandatory for all felonies. For instance, a fraud crime can be considered a felony, even with no physical harm done to another party.

I wanted to take a little bit of time here to discuss the differences between felonies and misdemeanors in California. Remember that each state will vary with what they consider to be felonies or misdemeanors.


In California, the punishment for a felony crime is typically a year or more in state prison. However, the most severe felonies allow for the death penalty. Common examples of felony offenses are:

  • Murder;
  • Rape;
  • Robbery;
  • Burglary; and
  • Drug possession or sales

If you are charged with a felony, your case will most likely proceed in the following manner: arrest, arraignment, preliminary hearing, and jury or court trial.

The arraignment is the first time you will appear in court. In most cases, a judge will inform you of your charges, your rights, and that you will be provided with a lawyer if you cannot otherwise afford one. Here, you will enter your plea.

The most common pleas are:

  • Not guilty: This plea means that you are saying that you did not commit the crime.
  • Guilty: This plea means that you are admitting that you did commit the crime.
  • No contest: This plea means that you will not fight the charge and the court will treat this as a guilty plea. However, this plea cannot be used against you in a civil action.

At the preliminary hearing, the judge will determine whether there is sufficient evidence that you committed the crime. If the judge determines that there is sufficient evidence, the case can advance to trial.

If you are charged with a felony, you have the right to a trial. The trial should start within 60 days of the arraignment in order to ensure a “speedy trial.” Depending on the situation, you will have a jury trial or a court trial. A court trial is one in which a judge hears the evidence and makes a determination rather than a jury.


In California, the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor crime is typically a fine for as much as $1,000 and one year in the county jail. Common examples of misdemeanor offenses include:

  • DUI;
  • Vandalism;
  • Driving on a suspended license; and
  • Petty theft.

If you are charged with a misdemeanor, your case will likely proceed in the following manner: arrest, arraignment, pretrial, and jury or court trial.

During pretrial, attorneys will participate in discovery (gathering information) and file various motions. As the defendant, you can change your plea to guilty or no contest at this point in the process. Typically, this is also the time that attorneys on both sides will try to settle the case without it having to go to trial.

This is just some basic information about felonies and misdemeanors in the state of California. If you have been arrested for DUI and are seeking legal counsel, do not hesitate to give my office a call.

About the Author

Terry A. Wapner

Terry A. Wapner confines his practice to the defense of persons accused of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and related crimes.


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