In criminal law, a misdemeanor is a lesser type of crime that is usually punished by a monetary fine and/or a short jail sentence of less than one year. A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that is less serious than a felony, but more serious than an infraction. Many jurisdictions set different classes of misdemeanors: high or gross misdemeanors, regular misdemeanors, and petty misdemeanors.

Common examples of misdemeanors include petty theft offenses, public intoxication, trespassing, displaying or distributing obscene materials, false imprisonment, stalking, and simple assault. Misdemeanors also include incomplete crimes such as conspiracy.

What Are the Different Classes of Misdemeanor Offenses?

Most states classify misdemeanors into four of five subcategories, according to the degree of severity of the offense. 

For example, misdemeanors are usually classified as Class 1 through 4 or Class A through D. Class 1 or Class A is usually the most serious type of offense and is associated with greater penalties. Each subsequent class is less severe, therefore a Class 4 or Class D misdemeanor will usually only result in a small fine.

Misdemeanor offenses that are not categorized under any particular class are called “unclassified misdemeanors.” These are usually dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and may result in punishments according to the judge’s discretion.

Some states also have a category of offenses called “minor misdemeanors.” These are usually offenses that do not result in jail time and only result in a very small monetary fee. Examples of minor misdemeanors include speeding violations and other minor citations. 

What Are the Legal Penalties Associated With Each Misdemeanor Class?

State laws will vary widely regarding how they assign punishments for each misdemeanor class. For example, punishments for misdemeanors will generally look like the following:

  • Class 1 or A:  Fines of up to $5,000, and/or a jail sentence of up to 12 months
  • Class 2 or B:  Fines up to $1,000, and/or a jail sentence of 6-9 months
  • Class 3 or C:  Fines up to $1,000 and/or a jail sentence of up to 3 months
  • Class 4 or D:  Fines up to $500 and/or a jail sentence of up to 30 days

Note that many states do not assign jail time for Class 4 or even Class 3 misdemeanors. Also, repeat offenses can result in higher penalties for the same type of misdemeanor.

What Is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony?

The main difference between misdemeanors and felonies is the type of penalty that is associated with each. Misdemeanors only result in jail sentences for a maximum of one year. The sentence for a misdemeanor will usually be served in a local or county jail.

On the other hand, a felony charge may result in imprisonment for greater than one year. The sentence will be served in a prison facility rather than a county jail. This is the main distinction in the consideration of what is a felony versus a misdemeanor. 

In addition, felonies are much more difficult to expunge (delete from one’s criminal record) and will often stay on the criminal record permanently. Also, some felony convictions result in the loss of civil rights, such as the right to own a firearm or the right to vote. However, being convicted of a misdemeanor will usually not result in the loss of civil rights.

Depending on the type of crime and the facts involved in the case, an offense can sometimes be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony. In such cases, it is usually up to the judge whether they classify the offense as misdemeanor or a felony.  

It is sometimes possible for a felony charge to be reduced to a misdemeanor charge. It is also possible for a misdemeanor charge to be “elevated” to the status of a felony depending on the evidence in the case. 

What Is a Wobbler?

A "wobbler" is an offense that may be prosecuted as a felony or as a misdemeanor. The term "wobbler" is used because the crime that has been committed is said to "wobble" between either being classified as being a misdemeanor or as a felony depending on the circumstances surrounding the crime. Some states have more wobbler laws in their penal code than others because of the different types of elements that are linked to each crime. For example, in California there are 100 different types of crimes that can either be a felony or a misdemeanor.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Misdemeanor Offense?

If you are facing misdemeanor criminal charges, you should speak with a criminal defense lawyer immediately. Your attorney can represent you in court and provide you valuable with legal advice. Also, an experienced attorney may be able to argue for a less severe penalty. If you are facing felony charges, it may be possible for your lawyer to get your charges reduced to a misdemeanor.