A wobbler offense, also called an “alternative felony/misdemeanor offense,” is a crime that can be charged or punished as either a felony or a misdemeanor in California. Usually the prosecutor decides whether to charge a wobbler as a felony or as a misdemeanor. In some cases judges will decide how to punish a wobbler offense. In addition, a defendant convicted of a wobbler felony may choose to file a petition with the court to reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor. In California there are hundreds of crimes that qualify as wobblers. These include sex crimes, domestic violence, and fraud crimes.
When can the wobbler offense be reduced to a misdemeanor?
There exist four times when a wobbler crime can be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor:
- When the prosecution first charges the offense;
- At a felony preliminary hearing when the defendant is held to answer;
- During sentencing; or
- If the defendant was not sentenced to prison, after the defendant has done California’s felony probation and filed a petition to reduce the charge.
How do prosecutors decide how to charge a crime?
California does not mandate how a prosecutor should charge a wobbler crime, it remains at the discretion of the prosecutor. In California prosecutors often follow the crime charging standards put out by the California District Attorneys Association. They suggest prosecutors look at the following factors to inform their decision:
- The defendant’s cooperation with law enforcement;
- The age of the defendant;
- The severity of the crime;
- The defendant’s criminal record;
- The chances of defendant continuing to commit crimes;
- If the defendant is eligible for probation;
- How strong the prosecution’s case is.
When do judges reduce a wobbler felony to a misdemeanor?
Judges, like prosecutors, have the discretion to reduce wobblers to misdemeanors from Penal Code 17. The judge can make this choice at either:
- The preliminary hearing,
- The time of sentencing, or
- Following the defendant’s petition to reduce a wobbler felony to a misdemeanor, for cases where the defendant was sentenced to and already completed California’s felony probation.
Judges are not bound by the prosecutor’s decision on how to charge the crime. If there are mitigating circumstances of the crime, judges are able to reduce a wobbler felony down to a misdemeanor. These mitigating circumstances are circumstances that argue in the favor of the judge being more lenient in sentencing. These mitigating factors include, among many others,
- The defendant not having any priors or an insignificant criminal record,
- The defendant played only a minor role in the crime
- The defendant’s acknowledgement of the wrongdoing and/or restitution to the victim early on in the criminal process
- The defendants earlier behavior on probation or parole was satisfactory.
How does one get a wobbler conviction expunged?
Expungement is a type of post-conviction relief in California that is available to most wobblers. For wobblers it does not matter if the charge ended up as a felony or as a misdemeanor conviction. Eligible defendants can petition for an expungement following a completed probation. If the court grants the expungement, the case is to be dismissed with no conviction. In addition, the defendant does not have to tell any employers in the future about the case. Those not eligible for expungement are people convicted of certain sex crimes involving children. Additionally, in order for the defendant to qualify they must also have not served time in California State Prison for their offense, or had served jail time in a state prison for a crime that would be now served in county jail following Proposition 47’s new legislation.