What You Need to Know About Felonies


Felony Defense Attorney for Torrance and Beach Cities

What is a Felony?

A felony offense is the most serious criminal charge that can be committed in California. Every state has different standards for what makes a felony and also the punishment it carries. California determines whether a crime is a felony or misdemeanor based on how long a convicted person might potentially be incarcerated. In California, if the potential sentence is more than a year  of incarceration, whether that’s in a county jail or in a state prison, the crime is a felony. If the potential incarceration is a year or less, then the crime is a misdemeanor.

Generally, the easiest way to determine if a crime is a felony or misdemeanor is to look at the potential time you could serve, although with the way the Penal Code is written, that is often easier said than actually done. Code sections get written and re-written over the decades, and it often takes a trained eye to sort out exactly what punishment is proscribed for a given criminal offense. Any crime that could result in incarceration for more than year is most likely going to be a felony, regardless if the time served is in jail or prison.

Understand that the key here is what the potential sentence might be. People convicted of felonies can (and quite often do) get sentenced to probation and some term of incarceration in a county jail which is less than one year– 180 days, for example. Those persons are still convicted of felonies; it’s not what the actual sentence winds up being in the particular case which matters for these purposes, but rather, what the legislature has established as the potential worst-case-scenario punishment.

Finally, understand as well: just because you are convicted of a felony, it does not mean you are automatically going to wind up in state prison.

What is a “wobbler”?

Some crimes may be punishable by either a year or less in county jail or imprisonment pursuant to 1170(h) (which is a felony sentence of 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in county jail).  Crimes with this sentencing structure are called “wobblers”, meaning that they can be either misdemeanors or felonies. In that event, the prosecuting agency will review the case and determine whether they are going to pursue the matter as a misdemeanor or as a felony offense. If a wobbler is charged as a felony, a judge has the opportunity to review the prosecution’s decision and determine that it should be treated as a misdemeanor instead; this is called a “17(b)” motion, and it is generally filed by the defendant’s lawyer.

What is 1170(h)?

1170(h) was a modification to the Penal Code that was enacted by the state legislature, it is often referred to as sentencing realignment. In order to help reduce prison overcrowding, the California legislature changed the sentencing option for certain felonies that are not serious, violent, or registrable as a sex-offender offense. Under 1170(h) it is possible to be convicted of felony, but spend your sentence in a county jail rather than a state prison. This a departure from the previous rule, where all non-probationary felony sentences had to be served in the state prison– in other words, any time someone spent more than a year incarcerated, that person went to the state prison. Now, defendants can spend years at a time incarcerated at their local county jail.

Are there different classes of felonies?

The federal government and some states assign felony offenses to a specific “class” – class a, b, c, etc… The most serious crimes are assigned to class a, and less serious offenses in b, c and so on. However, California handles felony offenses differently. In our state, the punishment is determined by the legislature on a crime by crime basis.  California does not have a “Class A” felony, instead, you have to look at the actual California Penal Code to determine the potential punishment for each crime.

How does felony sentencing work?

Felony sentencing is, without any question, one of the most complicated and difficult issues to understand in all of California law. Attorneys with decades of experience frequently still struggle with sentence calculation; judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys alike can all look at the same case and come up with different answers about what makes for a “legal” maximum sentence. For that reason, it is foolish to try to figure this kind of thing out on your own, at least as it applies to your particular case. There are innumerable variables which complicate any particular felony sentencing calculation. The only way to confidently understand the potential sentence you or a loved one might be facing is to consult with a qualified, experienced professional. It’s simply not something that can be properly explained in a web article; even if it could be, figuring out your individual situation involves far too many complexities.

Understanding felony offenses can be difficult and confusing.   However, hiring a lawyer who is familiar felony crimes gives you the opportunity to achieve the best possible outcome. If you or a loved one has been charged with a felony, you need and experienced criminal defense attorney on your side. At the Law Office of Andrew Bouvier-Brown we have the experience, knowledge, and skill to help guide you to the best possible outcome.

Whatever the crime, our office can help.

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