What are Some Common Misdemeanor Crimes and Penalties in California?

misdemeanor examples

For most people charged with a crime in California, their first question is likely to be: “Is this a felony or a misdemeanor?” While felonies are more serious criminal charges that can result in state prison time, misdemeanors are less severe offenses that generally result in up to a year in county jail.

Misdemeanors make up the bulk of criminal cases in California courts. These more minor crimes can still carry stiff penalties that affect your freedom, finances, and future. Understanding the most common misdemeanor offenses and potential sentences can help you evaluate your options if charged.

Here, we’ll break down key information on misdemeanor crimes and punishments in California that everyone should know.

The Most Common Misdemeanor Charges in California

Misdemeanors span non-violent, violent, and “wobbler” crimes (those chargeable as misdemeanors or felonies). Some of the most frequently prosecuted misdemeanors in California courts include:

Non-Violent Misdemeanor Offenses

  • Petty Theft – Shoplifting items worth $950 or less is petty theft, a misdemeanor in California.
  • Driving Under the Influence – First, second, and third DUI offenses (with no aggravating factors) are misdemeanors in California. In addition to jail time, you can also face license suspension.
  • Vandalism – Vandalism, like graffiti, is a misdemeanor when damage totals $400 or less.
  • Trespassing – Entering or remaining on a person’s property without consent, called trespassing, is a misdemeanor offense in California.
  • Simple Drug Possession – Possessing illegal drugs like cocaine or meth for personal use is a misdemeanor in California.

Violent Misdemeanor Crimes

  • Simple Assault/Battery – Assault is attempting to commit violent injury. Battery is willful, unlawful use of force. These acts lacking serious harm are misdemeanors.
  • Domestic Violence/Battery – Inflicting willful injury, sexual assault, or other violence on a cohabitant, spouse, fiancé, child, or dating partner is misdemeanor domestic battery. DV convictions also limit gun rights.

Other Frequent Misdemeanor Charges

  • Driving on a Suspended/Revoked License – Driving when your license is suspended or revoked for reasons like DUI offenses is a misdemeanor.
  • Resisting Arrest – Using force to resist arrest, deterring an officer from their duties, or fleeing arrest is a misdemeanor crime in California. Possible penalties include hefty fines and jail time.

Penalties and Punishments for Misdemeanor Convictions

The penalties for misdemeanor crimes in California often depend on the charges and priors involved. Possible sentences, if convicted, include:

Fines Up to $1,000

Most misdemeanors carry fines reaching up to $1,000 per offense. Exceptions like DUI can impose fines over $1,000. As a misdemeanor conviction remains on your record, these fines can increase with subsequent convictions.

Incarceration in County Jail

Misdemeanors generally carry jail sentences up to one year per offense. But sentencing guidelines, enhancements, and circumstances allow more or less jail time:

  • Up to 6 months – Common for first offenses like petty theft, trespassing, simple drug possession
  • Up to 1 year – Typical for violent misdemeanors like domestic violence and assault. Also seen in DUIs with injury, resisting arrest, etc.
  • Juvenile hall – Minors may serve time in juvenile facilities vs. county jail.

While courts can impose the maximum jail term, many first-time offenders may serve little or no jail time, especially with an experienced criminal defense lawyer negotiating on their behalf.


Many misdemeanor sentences involve formal or informal probation. Probation terms often include classes, community service, substance abuse treatment, staying crime-free, avoiding weapons, fines, etc. Violating probation equates to new misdemeanor charges.

Diversion Programs

California offers pretrial diversion programs that allow certain offenders to avoid trial and conviction through completing classes, treatment, community service, etc. These include:

  • Deferred entry of judgment – Defendants plead guilty but sentencing is deferred pending program completion. Charges are then dismissed.
  • Pretrial diversion – Defendants have charges dropped after completing program requirements. No guilty plea enters.

Collateral Consequences

Beyond direct penalties, misdemeanor convictions can also lead to:

  • Driver’s license suspensions – Mandatory for DUI, reckless driving, and certain drug convictions. Suspensions ranging from 6 months to several years are common.
  • Limit professional licensing – Many fields deny or discipline licenses based on relevant misdemeanor convictions. Examples include medical, legal, teaching, counseling, real estate, and financial licenses.
  • Bar gun ownership – Those convicted of domestic violence or certain violent misdemeanors cannot legally possess firearms.

This is just a sample of the widespread effects misdemeanors can cast on finances, freedom, family, career, and lifestyle. An experienced attorney’s advice is key to minimizing damages.

How Can You Fight Misdemeanor Charges?

The penalties make clear it is imperative to mount a strong defense against misdemeanor allegations. Smart strategies lawyers use to protect clients’ rights include:

Plea Bargaining

An experienced negotiator can often plea bargain misdemeanor charges down to lesser offenses or dismissals. This avoids harsh penalties. We’ve helped many clients avoid jail and limits on work/gun rights through strategic pleas.

Diversion Programs

Diversion programs provide avenues to avoid conviction and its effects on records/rights. Pretrial diversions, in particular, aid those with defenses but facing negative trial prospects. Our firm excels at identifying and obtaining diversion options.

Trial Defenses

When worthwhile and advisable, we’ll vigorously contest misdemeanor allegations at trial. We attack flawed evidence, questionable witnesses, and inconsistencies while asserting justification defenses. In many cases, we’ve won full acquittals after trial.

Every case is different. With an in-depth evaluation of the evidence, charges, and goals, we devise a defense aiming for the best possible outcome given the circumstances.

At What Point Do Misdemeanors Become Felonies in California?

Some factors that can elevate misdemeanors to felony charges include:

  • Prior convictions – Assault, and other misdemeanors become felonies with enough prior convictions.
  • Value enhancements – Misdemeanor vandalism becomes a felony if damage exceeds $400.
  • Injury enhancements – Misdemeanor assault/battery rises to a felony if it causes substantial or great bodily injury.
  • Charges filed as felonies – Prosecutors can charge wobbler crimes like fraud as felonies.

Absent such enhancements, misdemeanor charges generally do not become felonies when totals reach a certain number. Still, a series of misdemeanor convictions can negatively impact sentences, probation terms, and plea deals for any future charges.

Consulting a Criminal Defense Lawyer is Critical

Even misdemeanor convictions carry steep penalties that can derail finances, freedom, family, career, education, immigration status, and future opportunities. But, an experienced local lawyer’s advice can prove invaluable for navigating charges strategically and mitigating penalties.

If you or a loved one face misdemeanor allegations, don’t delay in scheduling a consultation. There are always defenses worth exploring, and early intervention by knowledgeable advocates can make all the difference.

Contact Kolacia Law today.

Author Bio

Daniel Kolacia is the CEO and Managing Partner of Kolacia Law Firm, a Rancho Cucamonga, CA, criminal defense law firm. As a former prosecutor with more than 15 years of experience in criminal defense, he is knowledgeable about both sides of the courtroom, an advantage he uses to help defend his clients. He has zealously represented clients in various legal matters, including white-collar crimes, misdemeanors, felonies, traffic cases, and other criminal charges.

Daniel received his Juris Doctor from the Southwestern University School of Law and is a member of the California Bar Association. He has received numerous accolades for his work and has worked on several high-profile cases featured on Dateline, CNBC, Los Angeles Times, and various local publications.

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