California criminal law

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California criminal law generally follows the law of the United States. However, there are both substantive and procedural differences between how the United States federal government and California prosecute alleged violations of criminal law. This article focuses exclusively on California criminal law.

Types of crimes[edit]

California defines a "crime" or "public offense" as 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: either death, imprisonment, fine, removal from office or disqualification to hold any office of honor, trust or profit in California.[1] In California, there are three different types of crimes and public offenses:
(1) Infractions,
(2) Misdemeanors,
and (3) Felonies.[2]


An infraction is a public offense, but arguably not a crime, and is not punishable by imprisonment.[3] Any person convicted of an infraction may only be punished by a fine, removal and/or disqualification from public office. Typically, most infractions are punished with a fine only. Examples of infractions in California are traffic violations such as exceeding the posted speed limit, etc.

Persons charged with infractions do not have the same right to trial by jury as misdemeanor defendants, notwithstanding laws that imply otherwise.[4] [5][6] Similarly, Defendants generally do not have a right to court-appointed counsel.[7] Infraction trials may be heard by non-judges, such as magistrates.[8]

Infractions were created in 1968,[9] originally only including parking violations, but was gradually broadened to include running stop lights and eventually most common traffic offenses.[8] Beginning in 1993, those accused of parking violations cannot generally contest them in a court of law until exhausting administrative procedures. See, e.g., [10]


A misdemeanor is a crime punishable by imprisonment in a county or city jail or detention facility not to exceed one year.[11] Except where the law specifies a different punishment, a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding six months and/or a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars.[12] However, many misdemeanor offenses specifically list a punishment that exceeds the punishment listed in Penal Code section 19. For example, a misdemeanor violation of Battery on a Peace Officer is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for up to one year and/or a two thousand dollar fine.[13] Instead of imprisonment, most defendants have the option to serve probation, with restrictions set forth by the prosecuting attorney and, upon agreement with the defendant, and the courts.


A felony is a more serious crime that can be punished by death or imprisonment in a state prison.[14] A person convicted of a felony can also be granted probation instead of a prison sentence.[15] If a person is granted probation, the court can impose many conditions on a grant of probation, including up to one year in county jail, money fines up to the maximum allowed by state law, and restitution to the victim for actual losses.[16] In addition, the court may impose other conditions as long as the conditions are reasonably related to the defendant's crime, or to future criminality.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ California Penal Code § 15. California Office of Legislative Counsel. Retrieved on 2018-12-02.
  2. ^ California Penal Code § 16. California Office of Legislative Counsel. Retrieved on 2018-12-02.
  3. ^ California Penal Code § 16.3. Retrieved on 2014-06-13.
  4. ^ California Penal Code section 19.6
  5. ^ United States Constitution, Article III, Section 2
  6. ^ United States Constitution, Amendment VI
  7. ^ California Penal Code Section 19.6
  8. ^ a b Brown, David W. (2011). Fight Your Ticket & Win in California. Nolo Press. pp. 408–409. ISBN 978-1-4133-1396-3.
  9. ^ Statutes of 1968, Chapter 1192, page 2254
  10. ^
  11. ^ California Penal Code § 19.2. Retrieved on 2014-06-13.
  12. ^ California Penal Code § 19. Retrieved on 2014-06-13.
  13. ^ California Penal Code § 243(b). Retrieved on 2014-06-13.
  14. ^ California Penal Code § 17(a). Retrieved on 2014-06-13.
  15. ^ California Penal Code § 1203. Retrieved on 2014-06-13.
  16. ^ California Penal Code § 1203.1. Retrieved on 2014-06-13.
  17. ^ See, e.g., People v. Carbajal (1995) 10 Cal.4th 1114, 1121.