Felonies are crimes punishable by a year or more in prison. Misdemeanors have a maximum penalty of one year in jail. The difference between a misdemeanor and a felony conviction can hugely impact the rest of a defendant’s life after conviction. Felony convictions can lead to much more hardship regarding professional licenses, employment, loans, and other societal benefits. In many cases, even where a felony is charged, there’s a pathway to get the charges reduced to a related misdemeanor. Below, we discuss the principal ways to have a felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor by the prosecutor or the court. Call a dedicated California criminal defense lawyer if you are facing misdemeanor or felony charges in Southern California.
Prosecutors often charge defendants with the most serious offense possible, even if they are not confident they would win at trial on the felony charge. They do so in order to encourage defendants to take a plea. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty or no contest to a specific criminal charge in exchange for dropping other charges or reducing the charged crime. A defendant may be charged with felony grand theft, for example, but the prosecutor may offer a deal under which the defendant pleads guilty to petty theft (a misdemeanor) and the felony grand theft charge is dropped.
The prosecutor must agree to the plea bargain, and the bargain becomes binding once the parties agree and the defendant pleads guilty or no contest. A defendant can enter into a plea bargain at any time up until the jury renders a verdict. If there’s a hung jury, there’s still time to enter a plea bargain.
California offers a number of different “pretrial diversion programs” for certain defendants. These programs are typically available to first-time offenders who commit non-violent crimes. The defendant agrees to complete a course of action ordered by the court (typically involving restitution, counseling, probation, and other elements). Upon successful completion of the program, so long as the defendant is not hauled in for another crime during the process, the charges will be dropped and the criminal records sealed.
There are a few pretrial diversion programs available. Defendants charged with low-level misdemeanors, typically low-level drug charges, have a program. Additionally, defendants who have a qualifying mental health disorder can benefit from a mental health diversion program, which also covers non-violent non-sexual felonies. Successful completion of a mental health diversion program will result in charges being reduced or dropped. Eligibility is more difficult for felony offenders, however.
Completion of Probation
California law provides a means for the court to reduce a felony charge to a misdemeanor following the completion of probation. Defendants can obtain this relief by filing a motion pursuant to Penal Code section 17, also known as a 17(b) motion. Only “wobblers”–crimes that are punishable as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending upon the facts surrounding the crime as charged–can be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.
In order to obtain 17(b) relief, the defendant must successfully complete their probation and adhere to all conditions imposed by the court. That may include completing community service, paying court fees, paying restitution, attending drug, alcohol, or anger management counseling, submitting to random drug testing, meeting with a probation officer, and other conditions set by the court. At the completion of probation, the probationer can request the court to reduce the conviction from a felony to a misdemeanor.
If the court grants 17(b) relief, the defendant can from there on lawfully state that they have never been convicted of a felony.
Undermine the Case
The final way to reduce a charge from a felony to a misdemeanor is to undermine the prosecution’s case. As noted, wobblers are crimes that are chargeable as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Often, the difference turns on the means used in committing the crime or the amount of harm caused. Use of a firearm during the commission of a crime, for example, can raise the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor. Additionally, many crimes of theft are misdemeanors when the amounts involved are smaller and are felonies when the amounts exceed $1,000 or more.
If the defendant can successfully undermine the prosecution’s proof that the aggravating circumstances are present–by, for example, showing that the government cannot prove the quantity of drugs involved or the amount of money stolen exceed the threshold for felony charges–then the court may reduce the charges to the included misdemeanor.
Get Help from a Dedicated California Criminal Defense Lawyer
If you are facing DUI or other criminal charges in Los Angeles or Southern California, call McReynolds Vardanyan, LLP, in Glendale at 818-855-2115. Our California DUI defense attorneys will fight for your rights and your freedom throughout every step of your case.