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Feb 14, 2019

Definition of a Felony in California

Those looking for the definition of a felony in California may be disappointed that the law is not very specific. The California Penal Code, which enumerates actions that are considered crimes in the state, starts by defining a crime or public offense. Essentially, it says that a crime can occur when an action is either committed in violation of a law – doing something illegal – or when an action is omitted – not doing taking an action that results in a law being breached. The Penal Code then states that crimes and public offenses include felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions.

Only then does the law offer a definition of a felony in California: a crime punishable by death, a sentence in state prison, or – in specific circumstances – a sentence in county jail. That’s it. It’s necessary to dig deeper into the Penal Code to understand which crimes and public offenses are considered felonies in California.

In California, the two major types of crime with which most people are familiar are “crimes against property” and “crimes against persons.” Felonies that fall into the “crimes against persons” category include robbery, assault, battery, sex-related crimes, kidnapping, and human trafficking.

When outlining the definition of a felony in California, it’s important to understand that some crimes can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors. These types of crimes are called “wobblers.” So, for example, if you’re arrested in Oakland on assault charges, you might be facing felony charges with the potential for a stiff prison sentence or you might be looking at a misdemeanor that carries little or no jail time. The difference in charges can be attributed to the circumstances of the crime, your criminal record, and the skill of your Alameda County criminal defense attorney.


California Felony Charges Pertaining to Crimes Against Property

We previously provided information about felony charges in California relating to crimes against persons. Now, let’s look at the definition of a felony in California as it pertains to crimes against property.

Arson: Arson charges can be filed for purposefully setting fire to buildings, wildlands, or other property – or for helping someone set a fire. Arson is virtually always charged as a felony, but the punishment for an arson conviction varies greatly depending upon the circumstances. For example, a conviction involving burning an inhabited structure carries a three-, five-, or eight-year prison sentence, while causing great bodily injury carries a five-, seven-, or nine-year prison term. If the structure isn’t inhabited or if land was burned, then a conviction could mean two, four, or six years in prison.

There are also circumstances under which an arson conviction can carry the original sentence plus a sentencing enhancement of three, four, or five years. This holds true if you’ve had a previous felony arson conviction, if emergency personnel suffered great bodily injury, if more than one person was injured, if multiple structures were burned, or if an ignition device was used.

In addition to the crime of arson, aggravated arson fits the definition of a felony in California. Aggravated arson can be charged when there’s a willful intent to physically hurt someone and you’ve been convicted of arson within the past 10 years, when the damage totaled more than $8.3 million, or when more than five inhabited structures were involved. If so, an aggravated arson conviction can mean a sentence of ten years to life in prison, with no possibility of parole until ten years have been served.

But what if the arson wasn’t intentional? If someone was injured, if the fire burned an inhabited structure, or if wildlands were burned, then the offense is considered a wobbler and can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor. The punishment for a misdemeanor conviction can be six months to a year in county jail, while the punishment for a felony conviction can range from 16 months to six years. This type of arson can also carry penalty enhancements of one, two, or three years if you’ve had a prior conviction, if first responders were injured, if someone suffers great bodily injury, or if multiple structures burned.

Burglary: The crime of burglary in California encompasses more than one would suspect at first glance. Anyone who intends to commit grand or petit larceny or any felony and enters virtually any structure is guilty of burglary. The Penal Code enumerates houses, apartments, warehouses, stores, barns, boats, railroad cars, cargo containers, aircraft, mines, and even outhouses as potential burglary crime scenes.

The crime of burglary is split up into first-degree burglary and second-degree burglary. First-degree burglary can be charged when the accused enters any inhabited dwelling (such as a house, houseboat, RV, or tractor-trailer cab), and a conviction can carry a two-, four-, or six-year prison sentence. Second-degree burglary is any other type of burglary and is charged as a misdemeanor.

If the burglary or attempted burglary involves attempting to use or using a device or explosive to breach a vault or safe, then the accused can be charged with a felony and, if convicted, can be sentenced to three, five, or seven years in prison.

Because burglary can be a wobbler, if you’re arrested in Alameda County, it’s important to have a seasoned Oakland criminal defense attorney by your side. An experienced attorney can work to have felony charges reduced to misdemeanor charges, or can possibly negotiate a plea agreement that enables you to avoid jail or prison time altogether and instead pay restitution and be released on probation.

Embezzlement: Embezzlement is broadly defined in the California Penal Code, but at its core involves misusing your fiduciary responsibility to take money or property from the government, your employer, an organization, or your dependent. The punishment for embezzlement depends upon the kind and value of the funds or property embezzled. For that reason, embezzlement can be treated as a misdemeanor or a felony. If the embezzlement is from a state or local government entity, then it is treated as a felony. The same holds true if the embezzlement involves real estate. If the embezzlement victim is an elder or your dependent, then that is treated as an aggravating circumstance to a felony conviction.

Forgery: In California, the crime of forgery encompasses a number of activities, most of which are treated as wobblers. For example, forging or altering a driver’s license or other government identification card can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony, as can possessing that forged or altered ID.

Check forgery, or forgery of another financial instrument like a traveler’s check or money order, is usually treated as a misdemeanor if it involves $950 or less. However, knowingly writing bad checks – either for yourself or on behalf of a company – can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Even if the dollar amount is $950 or less, someone with a prior conviction can face felony charges.

Extortion: Some authorities make a distinction between blackmail and extortion, but the California Penal Code considers both to be extortion. Essentially, extortion is getting something of value from someone else by force or by threat. The law says that threatening to hurt a person, their property, or a third party fits under the extortion umbrella, as does accusing the threatened person or their relative of a crime. Threatening to expose a person’s secret or their immigration status is also considered extortion. It’s critical to note that California law typically doesn’t differentiate between threatening to do something and actually carrying out the threat. You needn’t actually carry out the threat to be guilty of extortion.

Extortion is typically charged as a felony, and a conviction can carry a prison sentence of two, three, or four years. If the victim is an elder person or your dependent, that’s considered an aggravating circumstance during sentencing.

Identity Theft: In California, stealing someone’s identity and using it to obtain credit, goods, or services – or even medical information – can result in either misdemeanor or felony charges. If you have a prior conviction, you can be charged with a felony if you simply intended to defraud someone and never actually used their personal information. The same holds true if you have the personal information of ten or more people, or if you sell or transfer someone’s personal identifying information.


Felonies Involving Crimes against Public Justice

In addition to crimes against persons and crimes against property, the California Penal Code enumerates a variety of “crimes against public justice” that can be charged as felonies. For example, bribery and corruption involving public officials are often felonies. So are activities associated with prisoner escapes. Perjury, which means lying under oath, and suborning perjury, which is asking someone to lie under oath, are both felonies punishable by a two-, three-, or four-year prison sentence. Witness tampering and falsifying evidence can be charged as felonies, as can criminal profiteering and money laundering.


Definition of a Felony in California: Offbeat Felony Charges

The California Penal Code categorizes a variety of felonies, some of which are very familiar, and others of which are esoteric. The more esoteric felonies include:

State Sovereignty Crimes: These offenses are two sides of the same coin, treason against the state and the knowledge or concealment of treason.

Crimes Relating to the Executive Branch: These crimes pertain to attempting to influence or harm state officials and employees. For example, this part of the Penal Code prohibits and punishes offering or giving a bribe to someone in the executive branch of state government, or to a state employee or political appointee. It also encompasses attempting to prevent or discourage someone in the executive branch from doing their job, or threatening bodily harm to those people.

Crimes Relating to Legislators: The California Penal Code makes it a felony to bribe or attempt to bribe state and local legislators, and likewise makes it a felony to ask for or accept a bribe.


The Importance of Sound Legal Representation

If you have been charged with a crime in Oakland – whether it involves a crime against a person or a crime against property – then it’s crucial that your first call is to an Alameda County criminal defense attorney. Having sound legal representation from the time of your arrest can help ensure that your criminal justice proceedings don’t spin out of control. For example, having an attorney at your side when the police question you will likely prevent you from making any incriminating statements that can later be used against you. An attorney may even be able to prevent you having to spend the night in jail, and can potentially keep you out of jail after your preliminary hearing.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A good Oakland criminal defense lawyer is familiar with all of the players in the Alameda County criminal justice system, from law enforcement staff to prosecutors to judges. This knowledge can help them achieve the best possible outcome in your case. For example, your Oakland lawyer may be able to poke holes in the prosecutor’s case, resulting in charges being dropped or reduced. Because your attorney understands plea agreements, it’s possible that they can negotiate a deal whereby felony charges are dropped in exchange for a misdemeanor guilty plea. Should your case proceed to trial, your attorney can use tried-and-true defenses to secure an acquittal. In the case of a plea agreement or following a conviction, your attorney can negotiate your sentence. This can mean the difference between probation and jail or between county jail and prison. In addition, many felonies involve fines, restitution, and court fees. Having an attorney advocate for you can help reduce the financial impact associated with a conviction, ensuring that increased financial stability for your future.

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