What's the Difference Between a Misdemeanor vs. Felony?

A misdemeanor offense is a less serious crime than a felony offense. A felony offense is the most serious crime you can commit. A felony conviction comes with long prison sentences, fines, and potentially permanent loss of freedom. A misdemeanor conviction usually involves some jail time, smaller fines, and temporary punishments.

 For example, you can be slightly over the blood alcohol limit during a DUI stop and get a misdemeanor. However, aggravating factors, such as a child in the car or a severely high blood alcohol percentage, can increase a misdemeanor charge to a felony charge.

Types or Categories of Crimes

Most state criminal justice systems divide their crimes into different categories depending on the seriousness of the crime. The major categories are almost always determined by the amount of possible jail time. The major categories include:

  • Infractions
  • Misdemeanor crimes
  • Felony crimes

Within these categories are different levels or classes. It's important to know how the court system treats a particular case in order to understand the differences. As a general rule, however, when trying to figure out what the difference is between a misdemeanor and a felony, you can look at the maximum potential jail time for the crime for the answer.

What Is an Infraction?

In general, infractions are the least serious type of crime. An infraction is a violation of a rule, ordinance, or law. In most jurisdictions, there is no jail time associated with an infraction and it will not appear on a criminal record. Typically, payment of a fine or community service will be the only punishment. However, federal criminal law classifies an infraction as a crime with a jail sentence of not more than five days. Traffic tickets are examples of an infraction, but other offenses may also be categorized as infractions, such as trespassing, littering, disorderly conduct, and other petty offenses.

Infractions usually involve little to no time in court (much less jail). However, infractions can turn into more serious crimes if left unaddressed or unpaid. It is not uncommon that an infraction has different classes (e.g., moving violations, non-moving violations, and other petty offenses). The law typically provides for an increasing range of fines and potential penalties for the different classes within the infraction category.

What Is a Misdemeanor?

Misdemeanors typically include non-violent crimes like shoplifting, reckless driving, simple assault, or drug possession for first-time offenders. Under federal law and in most states, a misdemeanor is a criminal offense that carries a potential jail term of less than one year. Some states define a misdemeanor as a crime that is not a felony or an infraction.

Misdemeanors are sorted into classes. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the classes are divided by the maximum imprisonment for the offense:

  • Class A misdemeanor - One year or less, but more than six months
  • Class B misdemeanor - Six months or less, but more than thirty days
  • Class C misdemeanor - Thirty days or less, but more than five days

Typically, jail time is served in a local county jail instead of a high-security prison. Prosecutors generally have a great degree of flexibility in deciding what crimes to charge, how to punish them, and what kinds of plea bargains to negotiate.

What Is a Felony?

felony is the most serious type of crime. Examples of felonies are aggravated assault, domestic violence with bodily injury, sexual assault, and murder. The term “felony" is not uniform throughout the United States. The federal government defines a felony as a crime with a punishment of more than one year. States are less strict about this definition.

Most states, 43 in all, use and define the term by reference to either the length of a sentence or the place of incarceration, sometimes both. For instance, Idaho defines a felony as "a crime punishable by death or by imprisonment in the state prison." Georgia defines the term as "a crime punishable by death, imprisonment for life, or imprisonment for more than 12 months." Other states will define a felony by referencing the length of the sentence and the place the sentence will be served.

Typically, a sentence of more than one year that will be served in a state or federal prison will be considered a felony. As with misdemeanors, federal law breaks down classifications for felonies using sentencing guidelines by the amount of prison time:

  • Class A felony - Life imprisonment or the death penalty
  • Class B felony - Twenty-five or more years
  • Class C felony - Less than twenty-five years, but more than ten years
  • Class D felony - Less than ten years, but more than five years
  • Class E felony - Less than five years, but more than one year

Since the punishments can be so severe, criminal procedure must be strictly observed so that a defendant's rights are protected. Serious felonies are usually crimes that society views as severe and include crimes such as murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping, or arson. However, felonies can also be punished in a range of ways so that the punishment matches the severity of the crime.

What's the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony in Your Case? Speak With a Criminal Defense Lawyer Today

Criminal charges, whether a misdemeanor or a felony, can result in jail time, fines, job loss, and stress. The assistance of competent legal counsel can help ensure that you best understand your defenses and seek an outcome that minimizes your risk. Get started today and contact the law office of a criminal defense attorney near you.

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