Guide to California’s Criminal Codes and What They Mean for You

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Learning about the way California processes criminal charges helps you understand the way your criminal defense case may be approached.

California’s Criminal charges codes are organized into a series of acts on many different subjects, the most prominent being the Penal Code of California. From there, the text expands into legal jargon which isn’t always the easiest to understand. This is not because the law wants to punish you for lack of understanding, though. It’s a byproduct of the need for absolute precision in the American legal system. Luckily, we can help you decipher these codes for an easier awareness of California’s Criminal Codes and what they mean for you.


The Penal Code of California was enacted in 1872 and is split into these parts:

  1. Of Crimes and Punishments
  2. Of Criminal Procedure
  3. Of The State Prison and County Jails
  4. Prevention of Crimes and Apprehension of Criminals
  5. Peace Officers’ Memorial
  6. Control of Deadly Weapons

The code begins with an additional section on Preliminary Provisions. Within each part, there are separate titles, chapters within those titles, with sections as the individual laws. For example, the very first section of the Code is the Title of the Act, which defines the code and lays out the parts within. From there the Preliminary Provisions contain sections 2 through 24.

Preliminary Provisions

The Preliminary Provisions of the California Criminal Codes go over basic establishments that don’t affect most later content. In a nutshell, the Code was established in 1872, is not retroactive, and its provisions should be interpreted to promote justice. From there,California’s criminal charges codes list a series of definitions that your attorney must know, but you as their client do not necessarily need to know fully. The most important definitions are that of crimes being public offenses that violate the law. Punishments include imprisonment, fines, removal from office, or disqualification from holding office in the state. Crimes are split into three categories: felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions.

Barn on fire after arson

Crimes and Punishments

Under the California Criminal Codes, felonies are considered more serious crimes. These are the crimes that will get you sent to prison, or potentially death. Misdemeanors, on the other hand, are more minor. You may get up to a year in jail, but you’ll never go to prison for one. Infractions are the lowest form of crime and are reserved for a select subset. Infractions aren’t punishable by imprisonment and are often so minor you won’t even be entitled to a jury.

Crimes Against Property

It’s worth noting that in the California processing of criminal charges there are divisions based on the subject. Property crimes are primarily theft and burglary. The difference is that while with theft you actually steal something, with burglary you enter with an intent to commit theft. There’s also trespassing, arson, and vandalism. The main core of these laws in the California Criminal Codes is the idea that “a man’s home is his castle.” Intrude on this and you’ll do time, but not the worst amount possible in the California Criminal charges codes.

Crimes Against People

Assault and battery are the most common crimes in cases that involve civil harassment and domestic violence charges. If you’re unfamiliar with the difference, with battery, you have to physically harm someone, assault is the intent to harm. Assault will typically be a misdemeanor while battery can be a misdemeanor or worse depending on the damage.

Other crimes against people include robbery —taking something from a person using force or fear— and is typically a felony. Of the criminal code on crimes against people, homicide is the most severe and can result in a felony charge or charges, decades or life in prison, or the death penalty. California Criminal Codes go much further in-depth, but if you are facing allegations of homicide, it’s critical you work with a criminal defense attorney with experience and success pursuing the fairest defense outcomes for their clients.

Learn about the benefits of hiring a criminal defense and family lawyer to help you navigate criminal allegations against other people.

Possession of Guns

California tends to have very strict gun control laws. You can’t carry a concealed weapon without a permit, and it’s typically illegal to carry a non-concealed weapon. Simply having a gun on you can extend a crime sentence by up to 10 years. You’re still protected under the 2nd amendment, but the restrictions of the California Criminal Codes mean you need to be very careful about how you handle your firearms.

Get legal help with gun charges in California today.

Gun concealed in pocket

Possession of Illegal Substances (Drugs)

California Criminal Charges codes may have lessened for marijuana, but they’re still plenty strict for other substances. The main substances that will get you a hard time are methamphetamines, cocaine, and heroin. As for the actual crime, it’s split between possession for self-use, intending to sell, and actually selling. Personal use gets the least time and the closer you get to selling, the more time you get. Typically, for your first offense, you can get a diversion and do a 6-month program to learn the dangers of drugs. After that, the California Criminal Codes penalties get more severe.

Criminal Procedure

The process for California criminal charges goes through three phases: arraignment, pre-trial, and trial. 

  • In the arraignment, someone formally reads you your criminal charges and you’re expected to enter a plea. 
  • Then comes pre-trial, you have the option to enter a plea or make motions. 
  • Discovery of evidence typically happens during this time as well.
  •  Keep in mind that you have Miranda Rights (the right to remain silent), the right to confront your accusers, and the right to an attorney if you can’t afford one
  • As for the trial, you’re entitled to a trial by jury that must convict you unanimously and the judge can’t interfere. The California Criminal Codes bestow you a lot of rights as an accused person.


The California Criminal Codes are a lengthy set of documents that can’t be done full justice in one article. What do these codes mean for you and your situation? California’s criminal codes indicate a wide variation of crimes it’s important to be wary of. They mean that there are different levels of applicable punishment. And, most importantly, they mean that you have a large number of rights should you ever be accused. All in all, the Criminal Codes may be vast, but they are valuable as guidelines of California law and your rights as a citizen.

As your experienced criminal defense attorney, I will provide you with guidance throughout your unique legal matters and tirelessly pursue the best outcome for your case. To get started, please reach out to me today for a free consultation virtually, by phone, or in-person.

About Michael MacNeil

Michael C. MacNeil is a San Diego Family Law and Criminal Defense attorney. With a Juris Doctor degree from the University of San Diego School of Law, MacNeil has a solid understanding of our justice system. As a member of the State Bar of California, MacNeal can practice before all courts in the state. MacNeil believes that the law should be accessible to everyone, regardless of their financial status. With over 20 years of experience, Michael C. MacNeil is passionate about the law and will work tirelessly to get the best possible outcome for you. Call Mr. MacNeil at 858-922-7098.