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A wobbler is a special class of crimes involving conduct that varies widely in its level of seriousness. Wobbler statutes cover a wide range of offenses, including assault with a deadly weapon, vehicular manslaughter, money laundering, and defacement of property. Wobblers can be punishable as either a felony or a misdemeanor and has been referred to as an "alternative felony/misdemeanor." See: People v. Statum (2002)

Wobblers are punished consistent with felony or misdemeanor standards; in other words, a wobbler can be punishable either by a term in state prison or by imprisonment in county jail and/or by a fine. Whether a wobbler should be treated as a felony or a misdemeanor is up to a trial court's discretion.

For example, under California law, a wobbler is presumably a felony and remains a felony except when a court uses its discretion to make the crime a misdemeanor. The Supreme Court has also reasoned that courts hold this discretion to downgrade certain felonies, and impose a lighter sentence, to ensure that the applicable punishments for a felony would not be wrongfully applied to offenses in which a punishment for a misdemeanor would suffice. Courts have a broad authority to downgrade a wobbler to a misdemeanor, and this authority is based on an elastic standard. The Supreme Court of California has stated that a court's decision may be made based on "the nature and circumstances of the offense, the defendant's appreciation of and attitude towards the offense, or his traits of character as evidenced by his behavior and demeanor at the trial." The "general objectives of sentencing" is also considered. See: People v. Superior Court (Alvarez) (1997)

According to the Supreme Court, offenses can be classified as wobblers based on a defendant's history or the severity of the crime. See: Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003). For example, petty theft, which is generally a misdemeanor, becomes a wobbler when the defendant has previously served a prison term for committing specific theft-related crimes. On the other hand, other crimes, such as grand theft, are wobblers regardless of the defendant's history.

[Last updated in July of 2024 by the Wex Definitions Team]