California Criminal Law: An Overview

With nearly 40 million residents, California is the most populous state in America. It is also the sixth-largest economy in the world, surpassing France in 2014. With so many people and such a robust economy, there are many criminal laws designed to protect both citizens and businesses alike.

Indeed, California criminal laws often blaze trails and set legal precedence around the nation. Other states around the country often follow California’s lead and adopt their criminal statutes and court rulings.

California Felonies and Misdemeanors

Criminal cases in California generally categorized as felonies or misdemeanors, depending on their nature and the maximum punishment. California, like each state in America, is free to draft its own new criminal laws.

That means that if an act is deemed a crime in Barstow, California, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a crime in Las Vegas, Nevada or any other state. But state laws do have to be constitutional. Many state laws around the country have been deemed unconstitutional by federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

A felony is serious criminal charge punishable by death or by imprisonment for more than one year. Most state criminal laws divide felonies into different classes with varying degrees of punishment. Crimes that don’t amount to felonies are often called misdemeanors. In California, a misdemeanor is typically misconduct that the law provides punishment of less than one year in prison. Traffic and parking tickets are often called infractions.

California Prosecutors File Criminal Charges

Many people think that police officers decide who gets charged with a crime. The police are responsible for investigating crimes, gathering evidence and sometimes also testifying in court. But prosecutors – including district attorneys, United States attorneys, states attorneys and others – ultimately decide whether a suspect is prosecuted or not. California has a large network of district attorneys that prosecute state criminal laws in the state.

Capital Punishment in California

The death penalty remains in a state of legal limbo in California, despite efforts to ban the practice through statute or ballot initiative. While a 1972 California Supreme Court case outlawed the death penalty, it was reinstated in 1978. In 2014, a federal judge ruled that California's death penalty system is unconstitutional because it violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

California has not executed a prisoner since 2006. Lethal injection is the most common form of legal execution in California.

California DUI Laws

California has relatively strict DUI laws. Many people think "drunk driving" when they hear DUI, but someone who is high or on prescription medication can be charged with DUI. Any impairment can result in charges if a driver in impaired behind the wheel.

A police officer can charge a driver with DUI if it is determined that the driver is impaired to the “slightest degree.” The slightest degree means that a driver doesn't technically have to have a blood alcohol level over the legal limit to be charged with DUI. The legal limit for drivers in California is .08 percent.

Contact a California Criminal Defense Attorney

Anyone facing criminal charges in California has the right to mount a vigorous defense. An experienced criminal defense attorney is a crucial advocate for anyone charged with a crime. These attorneys are very familiar with local criminal procedures and laws—some may have even first worked as prosecutors.

Most criminal defense lawyers should be able to handle any misdemeanor or low-level crime. But not all lawyers are qualified to handle serious charges. Some courts don't allow inexperienced attorneys to represent defendants facing capital punishment.

Contact a California criminal defense lawyer to help guide you through the justice system. It could mean the difference between going to jail and going free.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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