Crimes receive different classifications according to their severity. The mildest criminal offenses are infractions. More serious crimes are misdemeanors. The most serious crimes are felonies. The type of criminal offense influences both the substance and procedure of the criminal charge.
It's important to understand the difference between minor offenses like infractions and serious offenses like felony crimes. This section describes each classification and examines how they differ from one another.
What Distinguishes a Misdemeanor From a Felony?
Felonies and misdemeanors are two classifications of crimes used in most states. Misdemeanors are punishable by fines and sometimes county jail time. Felony offenses are the most serious type of crime. They are often classified by degree, with a first-degree felony as the most serious and a third-degree felony as the least serious.
State laws may also categorize misdemeanors or felonies into classes. These classes include Class A, Class B, and Class C felonies. Some Class A felonies may have the death penalty or life imprisonment as a potential punishment. A Class B felony is a less severe crime with less severe punishment. A Class C felony has the least severe punishment.
Misdemeanors include crimes like DUIs and DWIs, domestic violence without bodily injury, and shoplifting. Felonies include violent crimes like terrorism, larceny, treason, arson, murder, rape, robbery, burglary, kidnapping, and drug trafficking.
What Is an Infraction?
Infractions are the least serious type of crime. Typically, law enforcement will see someone doing something wrong, write a ticket, and hand it to the person. The person then has to pay a fine. Infractions usually involve little to no time in court (much less jail), and include things like traffic offenses, jaywalking, and some minor drug possession charges in some states.
However, if an infraction remains unaddressed or unpaid, the law typically provides for an increasing range of fines and potential penalties. Common infractions are seatbelt violations, simple traffic tickets, littering citations, running a red light, and failure to stop properly at a stop sign.
Accomplice liability allows the court to find a person criminally liable for acts committed by a different person. If a person aids, assists, conspires with, or encourages another in the commission of a crime, they are said to be an “accomplice" to the crime. The person who actually commits the act is called the “principal." The crime for which an accomplice provides assistance is called the “target crime."
Civil vs. Criminal Cases
Civil cases usually involve private disputes between persons or organizations. Criminal cases involve an action considered harmful to society as a whole. Criminal law almost always allows for a trial by jury. Civil cases allow juries in some instances, but a judge decides many civil cases. The protections afforded to defendants under the criminal justice system are considerable (such as the protection against illegal searches and seizures under the 4th Amendment). Many of these well-known criminal law protections are not available to a defendant in a civil case.
Hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney
If you are facing a misdemeanor or felony conviction, you should seek legal assistance as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help determine whether you are liable and whether any defenses may be raised in your favor to avoid a prison sentence. You may wish to hire a criminal defense attorney in your area for legal advice and representation in court. If you cannot afford a private attorney, the court will appoint you a public defender.