Crimes receive different classifications according to their severity. The mildest crimes are known as infractions, more serious crimes are known as misdemeanors, and the most serious crimes are known as felonies. The classification of a crime influences both the substance and procedure of a criminal charge, so it's important to understand the differences between the classifications. 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, with petty offenses (infractions) being the third. Misdemeanors are punishable by substantial fines and sometimes jail time, usually less than one year. Felonies are the most serious type of crime and are often classified by degrees, with a first degree felony being the most serious. They include terrorism, treason, arson, murder, rape, robbery, burglary, and kidnapping, among others.
What is an Infraction?
Infractions are the least serious type of crime. Typically, a police officer 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 tickets, jaywalking, and some minor drug possession charges in some states. However, if infractions remain unaddressed or unpaid, the law typically provides for an increasing range of fines and potential penalties. Common infractions are seatbelt violations, simple speeding 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, 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 that is considered to be harmful to society as a whole. Criminal cases almost always allow for a trial by jury. Civil cases do allow juries in some instances, but many civil cases will be decided by a judge. he protections afforded to defendants under criminal law are considerable (such as the protection against illegal searches and seizures under the 4th Amendment). Many of these well known protections are not available to a defendant in a civil case.
Hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney
If you are involved in any way with a misdemeanor or felony charge, you should seek legal assistance as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help determine whether you are liable as an principal or accomplice, and whether any defenses may be raised in your favor. You may wish to hire a criminal defense attorney in your area for legal advice and representation in court.