In the majority of states, a misdemeanor is defined as a type of criminal offense for which a person who is convicted may receive a small criminal fine for, up to twelve months of imprisonment (i.e., one year maximum sentence), or both as punishment.
Misdemeanor charges are usually more serious than receiving a citation or infraction, but are less serious than being charged with a felony offense. However, the definition for misdemeanor charges will change according to the laws of a particular state since each state has its own classification system.
Despite the differences between varying state statutes, the most common characteristic found across all definitions of a misdemeanor is the fact that it is typically only punishable for up to a year in prison.
Some examples of crimes that are generally categorized as misdemeanors include the following:
- Petty theft;
- Simple battery or assault;
- Evading police;
- Cyber bullying;
- Criminal mischief;
- Possession of a controlled substance; and
- Interference with child custody.
As is evident from the above list, a broad range of crimes may be classified as misdemeanors. Again, whether or not an offense is labeled a misdemeanor crime will all depend on the laws in a particular jurisdiction and the circumstances of an individual case.
What is the Difference Between a Felony vs. Misdemeanor?
The primary difference between a felony and a misdemeanor is that felonies tend to be more serious offenses, which often involve an element of violence. As such, the other main difference between the two is the form of punishment that a convicted defendant can receive.
Since felony charges are more severe than misdemeanors, they frequently result in a prison sentence that lasts longer than a year and may also include having to pay a greater amount in criminal fines.
In general, crimes that are classified as felonies usually require proof of a higher mental state of intent (i.e., mens rea) than the level necessary to commit a misdemeanor. Felony crimes also tend to cause greater harm to its victims, which can include injuring an individual, society overall, or more severe property damage.
For example, the felony offense known as “grand theft” typically involves the theft of property with a dollar amount that exceeds $1,000. In contrast, the llesser misdemeanor offense known as “petty theft” applies to the theft of property that is valued at $1,000 or less. Again, these values may vary in accordance with specific state statutes.
Additionally, most misdemeanor offenses are victimless crimes, such as being in contempt of court, receiving certain traffic citations, and committing disorderly conduct. On the other hand, felonies usually result in severe bodily injury or damage, and sometimes even death. Some examples of felonies include first-degree murder, rape, and robbery.
One other final discrepancy between the two is that although both will appear on the defendant’s criminal record, misdemeanor charges are relatively easier to have expunged or removed than felony charges.
Are There Different Types of Misdemeanors?
As previously mentioned, most states have a classification system that identifies how to determine whether it falls under a misdemeanor offense and what the resulting sentence should be for committing a particular type of misdemeanor crime. For example, a state may divide misdemeanor crimes into levels, such as Class 1 or A, 2 or B, 3 or C, and so on.
The state may also categorize it by the amount of damage or injury caused by the crime. For instance, Class A misdemeanors are usually reserved for the more serious sorts of crimes that warrant greater punishment, but still fall below those crimes and punishments that would qualify it to be a felony.
In contrast, Class D misdemeanors involve the least serious types of misdemeanor offenses. However, most states stop classifying misdemeanors (i.e., unclassified misdemeanors) at Class C.
As a general example, a misdemeanor assault that results in bodily injury will most likely be classified as a Class A misdemeanor offense. If the injury leads to severe damage or death, then the crime can be elevated from a misdemeanor offense up to a felony charge (e.g., homicide).
Additionally, the misdemeanor assault can also become a felony charge when it involves an aggravating factor, such as if the assault was committed with the use of a deadly weapon, if the defendant was a repeat offender, or if the assault victim was a child or minor.
Can Misdemeanors Be Felonies?
As discussed in the above section, misdemeanors can easily become felony charges. The types of factors that may upgrade a misdemeanor to a felony offense include:
- Who the victim was (e.g., was it a child, police officer, elderly person, or pregnant woman?);
- Whether there were aggravating circumstances present (e.g., using a deadly weapon while committing the crime, being a repeat offender, or impersonating and/or defrauding a government official);
- The amount of damage or injury done to the property or a person; and
- Lack of proof for a defense (e.g., nothing to reduce the felony to a misdemeanor or lower offense).
A misdemeanor may also be charged as a felony when the crime committed is what is known as a “wobbler offense.” Whether a crime is classified as a wobbler will depend on a state’s penal codes.
For instance, a state criminal statute may provide that if a defendant does five out of the six requirements for a misdemeanor crime, it will “wobble” and turn into a felony offense.
Other factors that may contribute to “wobble” an offense include the defendant’s prior criminal record, the severity of the crime, and the age of the defendant.
Is a Petty Offense the Same as a Misdemeanor?
Infractions (or citations) are often described as petty offenses that result in criminal fines, but usually no jail time. As discussed, they are generally considered less serious offenses than both misdemeanor and felony crimes.
Some common examples of infractions include building permit violations, jaywalking, littering, fishing without a license, and minor traffic violations.
It is important to note that not all petty offenses are infractions. Some states use the term “petty offense” to refer to certain types of misdemeanor crimes.
A perfect example of this is the crime of misdemeanor larceny. Misdemeanor larceny is the property of theft that is valued below a specific dollar amount (usually $1,000 or less). Some states define misdemeanor larceny as “petty larceny” or “petty theft”, which can easily be confused or considered as a “petty offense.”
Despite its name, however, “petty larceny” is not actually a petty offense and thus a person convicted of it can be subject to more than an infraction. In fact, being convicted of a petty offense can lead to having a criminal record, paying heavier fines than those for infractions, and possibly serving a jail sentence that could last for up to one year.
Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Been Charged with a Misdemeanor?
It is crucial to review a state’s criminal statutes after being charged with a crime. It could mean the difference between having to pay a fine or going to jail. Therefore, it may be in a defendant’s best interest to hire a criminal defense attorney for further assistance and legal guidance on these issues.