The California Wobbler Offense Explained: Charges, Reductions, and Expungements

In California, a ‘wobbler’ offense is uniquely flexible within the criminal justice system, characterized by its ability to be charged and punished either as a felony or a misdemeanor. The distinction between these two levels of charges typically depends on the specifics of the case, including the severity of the offense, the circumstances surrounding the crime, and the defendant’s criminal history.

Prosecutors in California often hold the discretion to determine the initial charge. However, judges also play a crucial role in potentially reclassifying these offenses during sentencing or even after sentencing, particularly if the defendant demonstrates significant rehabilitation or meets certain legal criteria.

Examples of Common Wobbler Crimes in California

Wobbler offenses in California span a wide array of crimes, with potential charges ranging from misdemeanors to felonies based on the specifics of each case. Here are detailed examples of prevalent wobbler crimes, highlighting the criteria that influence the level of charges:

  1. Domestic Violence: The charge severity in domestic violence cases varies based on the extent of injury and any prior offenses. Minor physical harm with no previous history might lead to misdemeanor charges, whereas significant injuries or repeat offenses could elevate the case to a felony. Additional factors, such as the use of a weapon or the presence of children, also play crucial roles in determining the charge severity.
  2. Sexual Assault: Charges in sexual assault cases depend on the nature of the act and the circumstances involved. A case involving minor inappropriate contact without consent might attract misdemeanor charges, but if the assault includes coercion or significant harm, felony charges are more likely. The relationship between the perpetrator and the victim and any prior similar offenses by the perpetrator also influence the level of charges.
  3. Burglary: For burglary, the type of premises entered and the time of the incident significantly affect the charges. For instance, unlawfully entering a commercial building during the day might result in misdemeanor charges, but breaking into an occupied residence at night typically results in felony charges.
  4. Fraud and Forgery: The scale of the fraud or forgery dictates the severity of charges. Small-scale forgery, such as altering a check, may lead to misdemeanor charges, whereas large-scale fraud involving significant financial loss generally results in felony charges.
  5. DUI (Driving Under Influence): A DUI might be charged as a misdemeanor for first-time offenders without aggravating circumstances. However, if the DUI involves injuries, death, or if the driver has multiple prior offenses, felony charges are likely.

Prosecutorial Discretion in Charging Wobblers

Factors Influencing the Decision to Charge as Felony or Misdemeanor

The decision on whether to charge a wobbler offense as a felony or a misdemeanor in California rests significantly with the prosecuting attorney. This decision is not arbitrary but is influenced by several key factors:

  • Severity of the Offense: The nature and seriousness of the crime often play a critical role. More severe instances that involve significant harm or risk to victims are more likely to be charged as felonies.
  • Defendant’s Criminal History: Individuals with prior criminal records, especially those with previous felony convictions, are more likely to face felony charges for wobbler offenses.
  • Circumstances of the Case: Unique aspects of the crime, such as the use of a weapon, the presence of minors, or significant financial damage, can sway the decision towards a felony charge.
  • Victim Impact Statements: The impact of the crime on the victim(s) and their advocacy for a harsher penalty can influence the charging decision.

Role of California District Attorneys Association Guidelines in Charging Decisions

The California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) provides guidelines that help standardize how prosecutors across the state approach wobbler offenses. These guidelines offer a framework that considers legal precedents, equitable treatment of similar cases, and the intended outcomes of the law. By adhering to these guidelines, prosecutors aim to maintain consistency in charging decisions and ensure that they align with public safety and justice objectives.

Judicial Authority in Wobbler Cases

Opportunities for Reducing a Wobbler Felony to a Misdemeanor

Once a wobbler offense is initially charged as a felony, there are several junctures in the judicial process where it might be reduced to a misdemeanor:

  • During Sentencing: Judges have the discretion at sentencing to reduce a wobbler felony to a misdemeanor, based on their assessment of the case details and arguments presented.
  • Post-Sentencing: Reduction can also occur after sentencing, particularly if the convicted individual successfully completes felony probation or demonstrates reform.

Criteria Judges Consider When Reducing Charges

Judges consider a broad range of criteria when deciding whether to reduce a wobbler felony to a misdemeanor, including:

  • Conduct of the Defendant: Positive behavior changes, remorse shown by the defendant, and successful completion of any court-mandated programs weigh heavily in favor of reduction.
  • Impact on Victims: How the reduction might affect the victims, including their sense of justice and security.
  • Public Safety: Considerations of whether reducing the charge would pose any risk to the community.
  • Legal Precedents and Statutory Guidelines: Judges also rely on previous case law and statutory frameworks that dictate the handling of similar cases.

Key Stages for Charge Reduction

During Initial Charging by the Prosecution

The initial charging stage is crucial, as the prosecutor assesses the specifics of the case to decide whether to file the offense as a felony or misdemeanor. Defense attorneys have the opportunity to present mitigating factors and argue for lesser charges based on the circumstances and the defendant’s background.

At the Felony Preliminary Hearing

During the preliminary hearing, the judge reviews the evidence presented by the prosecution to determine if there is sufficient cause to proceed with felony charges. This is a pivotal moment where defense can challenge the strength of the evidence and push for a reduction to misdemeanor if the evidence does not strongly support a felony charge.

At Sentencing or Post-Sentencing

At the sentencing phase, the judge has the discretion to reduce the felony to a misdemeanor upon conviction, particularly if the defense demonstrates that the behavior leading to the charge has been addressed or mitigated. Post-sentencing, during probation reviews or completion, further reductions can be petitioned.

Following Successful Completion of Felony Probation

After fulfilling the terms of felony probation successfully, defendants can petition the court to reduce the felony conviction to a misdemeanor, which can significantly alter the long-term impacts of the conviction, easing reintegration into society.

The Impact of a Wobbler Conviction

Long-term Consequences of Felony vs. Misdemeanor Convictions

The distinction between a felony and a misdemeanor conviction for a wobbler offense carries significant long-term implications:

  • Employment Opportunities: A felony conviction can severely limit job prospects as many employers are hesitant to hire individuals with a felony record. In contrast, a misdemeanor, especially for a lesser offense, may be viewed less harshly.
  • Voting Rights: In California, felony convictions can disrupt voting rights until the completion of the sentence, including parole. Misdemeanor convictions do not affect voting rights.
  • Firearm Rights: A felony conviction typically results in a loss of the right to own or possess firearms. Misdemeanor convictions generally do not lead to such restrictions unless the misdemeanor involves specific domestic violence charges.
  • Public Perception and Social Stigma: Felonies are often associated with a greater degree of social stigma, potentially affecting personal relationships and community interaction more deeply than misdemeanors.

Specific Penalties Associated with Wobbler Offenses

Misdemeanor Penalties:

  • Fines: Up to $1,000 for most misdemeanor offenses.
  • Jail Time: Up to one year in county jail.
  • Probation: Typically one to three years, which may include specific conditions such as counseling or community service.

Felony Penalties:

  • Fines: Can exceed $10,000, depending on the severity of the offense.
  • State Prison: Sentences can range from 16 months to several years in state prison, depending on the crime’s severity and the individual’s criminal history.
  • Probation: If granted, felony probation can be more stringent and longer than misdemeanor probation, often lasting several years with strict compliance requirements.

Expungement of Wobbler Convictions

Expungement in California provides a pathway to clear a criminal record under certain conditions, including for wobbler offenses. Here are the specific eligibility requirements for expungement:

  • Completion of Probation: The individual must have successfully completed probation for the offense.
  • No Current Charges: The applicant must not be currently charged with a criminal offense, on probation for another offense, or serving a sentence for another offense.
  • Fulfillment of All Conditions: All fines, restitution, and court-ordered classes or programs must be fully completed.
  • Time Frame: For wobbler offenses that are felonies reduced to misdemeanors, the individual must wait at least one year after the misdemeanor conviction to apply for expungement.

Process of Expunging a Wobbler Conviction

  1. Petition Filing: The first step is to file a petition for expungement in the court where the conviction occurred.
  2. Court Review: The court reviews the petition to ensure all eligibility criteria are met. This may include a hearing where the prosecutor can contest the petition.
  3. Judge’s Decision: If the court finds that the individual has rehabilitated and meets all conditions, it may approve the expungement. This decision removes many of the disabilities that come with a conviction, although some rights, such as firearm possession, may not be restored if the conviction was for a felony.

Benefits of Expunging a Wobbler Conviction

  • Employment Opportunities: Expungement often improves the likelihood of securing employment, as employers may not discriminate against applicants for expunged convictions.
  • Housing and Loans: Clearing a criminal record can make it easier to obtain housing and qualify for loans.
  • Educational Opportunities: Expungement can enhance eligibility for some types of educational financial aid.
  • Reduced Stigma: Removing a criminal record decreases the negative stigma associated with a past conviction, improving personal and social interactions.

Legal Representation and Wobbler Offenses

Navigating the complexities of wobbler offenses in California demands an experienced and knowledgeable defense attorney. The unique nature of wobbler cases, where the charges can be filed as either a misdemeanor or a felony, allows for a significant range of legal maneuvers and implications. An adept attorney can significantly influence the legal outcomes through strategic planning and profound understanding of the law.

The capacity to argue effectively for a lesser charge during initial filing or to advocate for a reduction during or after sentencing highlights the critical role of skilled legal representation. Attorneys experienced in handling wobbler cases understand the subtleties of the law and the criteria that influence prosecutorial discretion and judicial decisions.

How a Criminal Defense Lawyer Can Influence the Outcome of a Wobbler Case

  1. Initial Charge Negotiation: From the outset, a defense attorney can negotiate with prosecutors using a detailed understanding of the client’s background, the circumstances of the case, and presenting mitigating factors that favor lesser charges.
  2. Representation at Hearings: During preliminary hearings, an experienced lawyer can challenge the prosecution’s evidence, argue for reduced bail, or seek to have charges dismissed outright. This is crucial as it sets the trajectory of the case.
  3. Sentencing Advocacy: If conviction occurs, a knowledgeable lawyer plays a pivotal role in the sentencing phase. They can present arguments and evidence supporting why a lesser sentence, or sentencing as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, is more appropriate.
  4. Post-Conviction Relief: After sentencing, attorneys can file motions to reduce a felony to a misdemeanor, which can be vital for the client’s future, affecting everything from employment opportunities to personal freedoms.
  5. Expungement: Finally, a defense lawyer can guide clients through the expungement process, helping to restore their rights and clear their records, provided all legal conditions are met.

Contact a Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney for Wobbler Offense Representation

Los Angeles Criminal Lawyer

If you or someone you know is facing charges classified as wobbler offenses, securing a consultation with an attorney experienced in California’s criminal defense laws is crucial. Attorney Arash Hashemi, with over two decades of experience in criminal defense, specializes in navigating the complexities of wobbler offenses, from misdemeanors to felonies.

Our office is strategically located in the Westside Towers of Los Angeles, serving clients throughout Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Westwood. We ensure ease of access from the Expo/Bundy Station and offer a range of flexible options tailored to your needs, including weekend appointments and jail visits to provide comprehensive case discussions.

For expert legal representation and to develop a strategic defense tailored to your specific case, please contact our office at (310) 448-1529 or schedule a consultation online. At The Law Offices of Arash Hashemi, we are dedicated to defending your rights and achieving the best possible outcome by guiding you through every step of the legal process with professionalism and expertise.

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