Implications of Crime Classifications

Both states and the federal government classify crimes depending on the potential punishment. Many jurisdictions also categorize specific crimes into degrees or classes. 

The implications of crime classifications in criminal law are significant. A difference in classification can influence how a criminal case is conducted. This is true from both substantive and procedural perspectives.

Most states recognize murder in three degrees: first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree murder. Also, a crime can be further divided into different classes, like Class A, Class B, and Class C misdemeanors.

Some criminal charges depend on whether the crime was committed in furtherance of a felony. Burglary, for example, is a two-part crime. It requires proof that the defendant broke into another person's dwelling with the intent to commit a felony once inside the home. If a defendant convinces a jury that he did not have the intent to commit larceny after breaking into the victim's home, then he is not guilty of burglary.

Learn more about the substantive and procedural implications of crime classifications below.

Implications of Crime Classifications: Substantive Consequences

The substantive consequences of a felony charge are far more serious than other types of crimes. Felony convictions usually require a jail sentence. The most serious crimes can lead to life imprisonment or the death penalty. Felons may also lose their right to vote, hold public office, or serve on a jury. In several states, attorneys convicted of a felony lose their right to practice law.

In contrast, a misdemeanor conviction requires less serious punishment. It may involve county jail time but is more likely to result in significant fines or community service. But punishments may vary depending on the defendant's criminal record.

Implications of Crime Classifications: Procedural Consequences

Criminal procedure sets forth different rules depending on the seriousness of the crime. The Fourth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution allows law enforcement to make warrantless arrests of suspected felons so long as there is probable cause that the suspect committed the crime.


Officers may make warrantless arrests of suspected misdemeanants only if the crime occurs in the officer's presence. Police don't have the authority to shoot an alleged misdemeanor offender while attempting to make an arrest. An exception to this rule is if the officer fires shots in self-defense. Officers generally have more authority to use deadly force when arresting a felon with a deadly weapon.


Most criminal courts have limited jurisdiction over the kinds of cases they can hear. A court with jurisdiction over only misdemeanors has no power to try a defendant charged with a felony. Many state laws require felony defendants to be charged by a grand jury. Jurisdictions vary on whether defendants charged with a misdemeanor have the right to a jury trial.

Capital Offenses

Defendants charged with capital felony offenses are entitled to have their cases heard by a jury of twelve persons. The jury must unanimously agree before returning a conviction. Defendants charged with non-capital felonies and misdemeanors may have their cases heard by as few as six jurors.


The right to trial by jury is reserved for more serious crimes. It is generally not afforded to defendants charged with infractions or petty offenses. Infractions are minor offenses like traffic offenses and traffic tickets. Defendants charged with felonies or misdemeanors that may result in a prison sentence are entitled to a court-appointed lawyer. Defendants charged with infractions or misdemeanors that will not result in incarceration are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer.

Accused felons must generally be present during their trials. In contrast, accused misdemeanants may agree to waive their right to be present. A court can impeach defendant and witness testimony on the ground of a former felony conviction. But a misdemeanor isn't grounds for impeachment in most jurisdictions.

There are many procedural safeguards afforded to defendants charged with more serious crimes. As a result, defendants must consent to any prosecution effort to downgrade a criminal offense where fewer safeguards are offered.

Talk to an Attorney To Discuss the Implications of Crime Classifications

The classification of crimes can have a significant impact on your case. An experienced attorney can negotiate with a prosecutor to get a reduced prison sentence or certain charges dropped. Get legal advice from a skilled criminal defense attorney in your area.

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