Criminal offenses in California are primarily classified as misdemeanors or felonies based on how severe the supposed criminal conduct is and the defendant’s criminal history. Whereas criminal charges must always be categorized as misdemeanors or felonies, some are known as wobblers. Understanding what a wobbler means will assist you in better understanding what’s at stake should you face criminal charges. It’ll also help you know the significance of hiring a skilled criminal defense attorney who can work to minimize the severity of the accusations and punishments you face.
What’s a Wobbler Under California Law?
Criminal law defines a wobbler, also referred to as an alternative misdemeanor/felony offense, as a criminal offense that could be prosecuted and penalized either as a misdemeanor or a felony. This category of crimes was originally formed to ensure flexibility in the criminal justice system. That is, whereas a crime may initially be deemed a felony, various unique circumstances can still achieve justice by lowering it to a misdemeanor offense.
The discretion to charge a crime as a wobbler usually lies with the prosecutor. This discretion comes into play when the prosecutors decide whether or not to press charges and what charges to file. On the other hand, the judge has the power to determine how to sentence you (although they could also lower the charges before sentencing). In given cases, defendants who’ve been found guilty of a felony wobbler might be capable of filing a petition seeking to lower the conviction to a misdemeanor.
Only given criminal offenses can be classified as wobblers. Criminal conduct such as manslaughter, rape, carjacking, murder, robbery, vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, and lewd acts with a minor under fourteen years wouldn’t be considered wobbler crimes. Instead, they’re the so-called straight felonies. A straight felony is a criminal conduct that is penalized only as a felony.
The Difference Between a Felony and Misdemeanor
The decision to press felony or misdemeanor charges is critical because the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor conviction is significant.
A standard California misdemeanor is punishable by a county jail sentence of up to six months and a maximum fine of one thousand dollars. Public intoxication and petty theft are examples of standard misdemeanors. Gross or aggravated misdemeanors are serious and are punishable by a county jail sentence of up to one year and a fine. DUI, simple battery and simple assault are examples of gross/aggravated misdemeanors.
A felony conviction is more serious and could lead to a state prison sentence, hefty fines that would go as high as ten thousand dollars or more, and felony probation, which is longer and comes with more restrictive conditions. A violent or serious felony offense conviction may also count as a strike on your criminal record, triggering enhanced punishments for a second strike and possible life imprisonment for a third strike.
Apart from criminal consequences, you can lose certain privileges and rights if convicted of a felony offense. The conviction could affect the following aspects of your life:
- Professional license— if you’ve been convicted of criminal conduct related to the duties or qualifications required by your profession, you could lose your professional license. Examples of professions whose professional license can be lost due to a felony conviction include real estate agent, licensed surveyor, licensed engineer, attorney, teacher, pharmacist, dentist, physician, and nurse.
- Employment status— prospective employees have to disclose specific types of information, including prior criminal convictions. If you omit information regarding your conviction, it could lead to the employer refusing to offer you the job. And even if you’re hired, you can be terminated if the omission is later discovered. At the same time, if you disclose that you have been convicted of a felony before, the employer may be hesitant to hire you.
- Firearms— if you have been subjected to a felony sentence, you will lose the right to purchase, own, possess, and use a gun. You will also lose your right to cast your vote during elections.
- Armed forces— generally, convicted felons may not qualify to join the armed forces. And former or current members of the armed forces may lose their pensions for particular felony convictions.
- Alcohol license— a felony conviction may be the basis for denial of a license to sell alcohol.
These are severe collateral consequences that could have a long-lasting effect on your life. Therefore, irrespective of what defenses your lawyer may argue, they’ll ideally try having a wobbler crime prosecuted as a misdemeanor in the first instance.
Misdemeanors have a one-year statute of limitations, while the statute of limitations for felonies is three years. A statute of limitations is a law that forbids the prosecution from pressing criminal charges after a stipulated period. Wobblers would be subjected to the statute of limitations of felonies. For instance, the D.A has three years to press DUI injury charges against you even where they end up deciding to press misdemeanor charges.
Although the penalties for misdemeanor and felony call for incarceration, that doesn’t mean that you’ll go to prison or jail if you’re convicted. Even if you are found guilty, and based on the facts surrounding your case, the judge will often suspend or stay the imposition of a sentence and grant you probation or any other alternative sentence.
When the district attorney files charges under the wobbler category, they’ll often charge the crime as a felony except if the facts surrounding the case are minor or you don’t have a criminal history. The reason for this is that it provides them with a bargaining tool in plea bargaining. The prosecutor may, for instance, offer you a reduction to a misdemeanor in exchange for your plea of guilt.
Examples of Wobblers
Hundreds of crimes are considered wobblers in California. They include:
- Statutory rape
- Criminal threats
- Carrying a loaded gun in public
- Vehicular manslaughter
- Assault with a deadly weapon
- Sexual battery
- Child endangerment
- Lewd acts with a minor
- Spousal battery
- Grand theft
- Corporal Injury to a spouse or cohabitant
- Aggravated battery
- Dissuading a witness
- Accessory after the fact
- Money laundering
- A battery on police with injury
- Child neglect
- Receiving stolen property
- DUI causing injury
- Fourth offense DUI
- Vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated
Even though most wobblers are listed under the Penal Code, these crimes are also listed under other codes like the Professions Code, Vehicle Code, Health and Safety Code, Business and Professions Code, Family Law Code, and Commercial Code.
Factors the Prosecutor Considers When Charging a Crime
The state’s law doesn’t set forth regulations for how the prosecution should press wobbler charges. The decision is at the district attorney’s discretion. However, prosecuting attorneys generally decide whether or not to press wobbler charges in compliance with Uniform Crime Charging Standards published by the CDAA (California District Attorneys Association). The CDAA provides that the prosecution consider these factors:
- How severe the crime is.
- Whether or not the accused is cooperating with the authorities.
- The accused’s past criminal record.
- The accused’s age
- The likelihood that the defendant will continue committing crimes.
- Whether or not the accused is qualified for probation.
- How strong the prosecution’s case is.
In theft cases, the dollar amount determines whether the offense is a misdemeanor or a felony theft. If you have been detained for shoplifting and the value of the shoplifted goods is nine hundred and fifty dollars, it’s considered a misdemeanor petty theft. In DUI cases, factors that distinguish whether the criminal conduct is a misdemeanor or a felony are whether you have a prior DUI conviction and whether there was an injury. Minor injuries will likely lead to misdemeanor charges, while severe life-threatening ones will lead to felony charges.
When a Wobbler Can be Lowered to a Misdemeanor from a Felony
17 PC gives judges and prosecutors the power to lower a felony charge to a misdemeanor. We have four stages at which a wobbler can be lessened from a felony to a misdemeanor. They are:
- When filing charges
- At the felony preliminary hearing,
- During sentencing, or
- As long as the defendant wasn’t sentenced to state prison after they have completed formal (felony) probation and brought a petition seeking to reduce the felony conviction to a misdemeanor
The prosecutor can make this decision at the time of filing charges. On the other hand, the judge can do it during the preliminary hearing, sentencing, and as long as the accused was sentenced and successfully served formal probation, following their petition to lower the felony conviction to a misdemeanor conviction.
Judges aren’t bound by how the D.A decided to prosecute the criminal offense. They’re free to lower felony charges to misdemeanor charges if mitigating factors are present in the case. Mitigating factors refer to circumstances that lessen the culpability or severity of a crime. They make the judge more lenient in their decision. These circumstances include but aren’t restricted to:
- The accused doesn’t have a prior, or they only have a minor criminal
- The accused used caution to avoid hurting people or damaging property
- The accused played a trivial role in the commission of the crime or was only a passive participant
- The accused paid victim restitution
- The alleged offender voluntarily acknowledged their wrongdoing at the early stages of the prosecution process.
- The accused’s past performance on parole or probation was satisfactory
It’s worth repeating that a straight felony can’t later be lowered to a misdemeanor, unlike wobblers. If you’ve been charged with a straight felony, you should speak to a criminal defense lawyer to advise you on your legal options. They may seek to minimize the maximum punishments you may face or argue a plea deal on your behalf.
The presence of aggravating circumstances is another critical consideration when deciding whether to charge a crime as a wobbler or reduce a felony wobbler to a misdemeanor. Aggravating factors are those that elevate the severity of an offense. When one or several aggravating factors are present in your case, the judge may hesitate to reduce your wobbler felony charge to a misdemeanor. Examples of aggravating circumstances include:
- If a victim died or sustained severe bodily injury
- Whether drugs or alcohol were involved
- Whether a deadly weapon was used to commit the crime
- The class of the victim. For example, were they a peace officer, woman, or a child
- A firearm in the defendant’s possession during the crime, irrespective of whether or not it was used
It is critical to note that the facts surrounding each criminal offense will differ. Whereas one criminal offense with similar defendants and victims may be charged as a misdemeanor, another virtually identical violation could be prosecuted as a wobbler. There might be slight differences that may not mean much to you, but it could mean the difference between a serious felony and a light misdemeanor in court.
Expunging a Wobbler
Most wobbler convictions in California are subject to expungement. An expungement is a type of post-conviction relief. If your conviction record is expunged, it won’t exist on your criminal record anymore, thus ceasing to exist for most purposes. Most importantly, you don’t have to disclose your expunged conviction if you are applying for a job or being interviewed for a job position.
Most wobblers can be expunged irrespective of whether the crime led to a misdemeanor or felony conviction. To be eligible for an expungement, you must:
- Have completed the probation sentence for the crime (or received an early probation sentence termination), and either
- You mustn’t have served a state prison sentence for the crime, or
- You must’ve served a prison sentence for a crime whose sentence would currently be served in jail as a result of Prop 47 realignment law passed in 2011
Note that we have some crimes that can’t be expunged. They include serious sexual offenses against minors. However, if you’re convicted of any of the non-expugnable crimes, you may ultimately be capable of obtaining a Governor’s pardon or rehabilitation certificate.
There Are Wobblers, and There Are Wobblettes
Wobblettes are crimes that the prosecutor/judge can charge/sentence either as an infraction or misdemeanor. California infractions are non-criminal offenses that could be penalized only by paying a fine— no jail sentence. Many infractions are punished by a maximum fine of two hundred and fifty dollars.
On the contrary, most misdemeanors can be punishable by a maximum fine of one thousand dollars and six months in county jail. In most cases, wobblettes work similarly to wobblers. If your crime is a wobblette, the misdemeanor charges can be lowered to an infraction in these two ways:
- By the prosecution when filing charges
- By judges during sentencing
Wobblette crimes include:
- Criminal trespass
- Disturbing the peace
- Driving with no license
- Exhibition of speed
- Driving on a revoked or suspended driver’s license
- Failure to appear for a traffic violation
Defendants Have to Consent to Wobblette Crime Being Prosecuted as a Misdemeanor
There’s one critical difference between wobblettes and wobblers. Before the prosecutor charges a wobblette as an infraction, the accused has to agree. This is because an individual facing an infraction charge can’t have a jury trial. They are also not allowed to have a public defender (except if held in jail).
Most people would consent to face infraction charges and pay only a small amount in fines. However, some defendants might prefer facing misdemeanor charges because misdemeanors can frequently be punishable by time in jail instead of paying a fine, which they may not have.
Why You Should Speak to a Lawyer
The California wobbler system has drawbacks and benefits. Theoretically, it allows for compassion towards the defendant. The district attorney can take everybody into account and prosecute them fairly. We do not have the rigid ‘if you did this, that’s what you receive’ philosophy that governs most criminal prosecutions in other states.
Practically, however, wobbler charges are highly subjective. The hardline ‘this is equivalent to that’ system makes the prosecution’s job easier. Prosecutors can see an offense, search it on the list to see where it falls, and prosecute it as a misdemeanor or felony.
An experienced attorney will evaluate the facts surrounding your specific case then compare them with the charges you face. They can discover discrepancies and errors with the prosecution’s accusations. They can then help argue down the charges or perhaps have them dismissed altogether. Note that you are entitled to legal counsel and defense, and your attorney will fight to ensure you’re appropriately represented.
Find an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Near Me
If you’ve been charged with a wobbler crime, reach out to a skilled criminal defense lawyer as quickly as possible. At The Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney, our expert criminal defense attorneys understand the compelling arguments they’ll present when representing you in court to lower your charges to a misdemeanor.
As mentioned earlier, there is a life-changing difference between a misdemeanor and a felony. Therefore, having your charges reduced to a misdemeanor is critical. And if your case proceeds to trial, your lawyer will represent your best interests in court. We serve clients facing wobbler, felony, or misdemeanor charges in Los Angeles, CA. We help them obtain the best possible outcome for their case. Call us at 310-564-2605 for a consultation and case evaluation.