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Felonies That Are Reduced to Misdemeanors & Subsequent Prosecutions

People v. Mauch
California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Division Three
June 3, 2008

Holding: A wobbler that has been reduced to a misdemeanor will no longer qualify as a serious offense for purposes of a sentence enhancement in a subsequent prosecution.

Why This Case is Important: Either the court or the defendant may move to have a felony offense reduced to a misdemeanor pursuant to Penal Code section 17(b). An offense will be reduced only if it is considered a “wobbler.” In other words, the Legislature must have determined that the offense is punishable by state prison, or a fine, or imprisonment in county jail. Such an offense will be considered a felony unless the court takes affirmative steps to reduce the offense to a misdemeanor. However, once an offense is reduced to a misdemeanor, it will be considered a misdemeanor for all purposes.

In this case, the effect of reducing a felony conviction to a misdemeanor precluded the trial court from enhancing the defendant’s imprisonment for five additional years. The statute that authorized sentencing enhancement depended on the fact that the defendant was previously convicted of a serious felony. Because the defendant’s offense was reduced to a misdemeanor for all purposes, then it could not be considered a previous serious felony, and the sentencing enhancement was inapplicable.

It is important to note that there are some instances in which a reduced offense may still be considered a felony. Examples of such instances are the disqualification of peace officers that have prior felony convictions, and the use of reduced offenses under the Three Strikes Law. However, these exceptions have been expressly carved out by the Legislature. The statute in this case expressed no legislative intent to allow the court to consider a reduced offense as a felony. As such, the defendant’s offense was to be considered a misdemeanor for all purposes, and could not be used for sentence enhancement.

Facts of This Case: In 2003, the defendant in this case pleaded guilty to a charge of felony assault. This offense was later reduced to a misdemeanor pursuant to section 17(b). In 2007, the defendant was involved in another altercation, and was convicted of attempted voluntary manslaughter, assault with a firearm, and causing great bodily injury. Pursuant to Penal Code section 667(a), which authorized a sentence enhancement for those who had previously committed as serious felony, the trial court enhanced the defendant’s sentence for five additional years. The enhancement was based on the trial court’s belief that the defendant’s 2003 conviction, which had been reduced, was a prior serious felony that triggered the sentence enhancement of section 667(a).

The court of appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court, but the California Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that section 17(b) reduced a felony offense to a misdemeanor for all purposes. The Court determined that an offense could be considered a felony after it had been reduced only in instances where the Legislature had expressed the intent that the offense could still be considered a felony.

The Court stated that the Legislature expressed no intent for section 667(a) to allow a court to consider a reduced offense as a felony. Because the reduced offense was a misdemeanor for all purposes, then it could not be considered a previous serious felony offense, and therefore could not be used to enhance the defendant’s sentence.

The Court thereby reversed the decision of the Court of Appeal, and ordered the trial court to resentence the defendant without the section 667(a) enhancement.

Key Language: “Reduction of a wobbler to a misdemeanor under what is now section 17(b) generally precludes its use as a prior felony conviction in a subsequent prosecution.”

Expert Advise: “Reducing a felony offense to a misdemeanor has many advantages. It can open up doors for personal and professional advancement, and as this case demonstrates, can even prevent harsher sentences for subsequent convictions.” Attorney Mathew Higbee

To read about more cases that help to define record clearing relief laws click here.

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