In each state, crimes are usually classified according to how serious the crime is. While each state may classify crimes slightly differently, crimes are usually classified into three different groups: infractions, misdemeanor, and felony crimes. Infractions are the least serious types of offense, while felonies are the most serious.
Crimes can be classified in this way to make the criminal system more efficient and help the public understand the impact of crime on society.
What Are “Infractions”?
Infractions are the least serious class of criminal offenses, although they may be considered lesser-included crimes for more serious crimes. A typical infraction is only punishable by a small fine, and no jail time is involved. Infraction charges generally do not require a jury trial because no jail time is involved. In addition, the defendant may not be provided with an attorney, and a prosecutor may not be present at the hearings.
The following are some examples of common infractions:
- Traffic violations
- “Petty” crimes like petty theft, shoplifting, or jaywalking
- Violations involving the public, such as disorderly conduct or noise violations
- Some states classify minor drug crimes as infractions or traffic violations (such as possessing a small amount of marijuana for personal use).
Offenders who commit many infractions may also be required to attend mandatory courses like traffic school.
What’s a “Misdemeanor”?
Misdemeanors are the second most serious offense when it comes to categorizing crimes. Misdemeanors are punishable by criminal fines (often less than $1,000) and a maximum one-year jail sentence. A county jail facility serves the jail sentence instead of a federal prison facility.
As with infractions, offenders may also be required to attend education or rehabilitation programs. Misdemeanors can also be punished with parole or probation. Examples of misdemeanors are:
- Assault & battery
- Driving under the influence (DUI or DWI)
- Common theft
- Failing to appear in court
- More serious traffic offenses
In many states, misdemeanors are further divided into different classes of misdemeanors according to the seriousness of the crime (such as Class A misdemeanor, Class B, etc.)
Certain misdemeanors can be “elevated” to the status of felonies if certain conditions are met. For example, assault is usually a misdemeanor charge. If the assault occurs against a police officer or with a deadly weapon, then the misdemeanor charges are elevated to felonies.
What Are “Unclassified” Misdemeanors?
The majority of state criminal laws categorize misdemeanors into classes, such as Class A, Class B, Class 1, Class 2, etc. They are usually based on the severity of the crime and the corresponding punishments for each class. Unclassified misdemeanors are those that don’t fit neatly into any of the existing categories.
There may actually be a separate category called “Unclassified Misdemeanors” in some states, including offenses that are too unique, that involve new legal issues, or that are not very serious.
Minor gambling crimes, less serious misdemeanors such as littering, and various traffic violations are examples of unclassified misdemeanors. Each state will have its own laws.
What Is a Gross Misdemeanor?
Gross misdemeanors are criminal offenses that are more serious than regular misdemeanors. They usually carry stiffer penalties than regular misdemeanors. State laws determine the definition or classification of gross misdemeanors. Crimes including drunk driving, “aggravated” assaults (those involving a deadly weapon), and crimes involving repeated behavior (such as stalking) are typical.
Gross misdemeanors are more serious, but they are still considered less serious than felonies. A crime classified as a gross misdemeanor in one state might not be considered a serious crime in another state.
What Is the Punishment for a Misdemeanor?
Misdemeanor crimes can result in jail time (in a county jail facility, not in a state prison facility) and criminal fines. Jail sentences usually carry a maximum of one year in jail. Criminal fines are typically capped at $1,000, though this can vary from state to state.
Criminal misdemeanor charges can also have different consequences depending on the type of violation involved. A defendant who commits a misdemeanor graffiti offense may be required to perform community service or write an apology to the property owner. On the other hand, drunk driving can be punished by mandatory DUI classes (traffic school) and other measures. These can be added to the fines or jail sentence.
What Is a Felony?
The most serious crimes are felonies. They usually involve serious harm to the public, such as violent conduct or drug distribution. Felonies can result in heavy fines (more than $1,000) and a prison sentence of at least one year. Felony charges are the most difficult to expunge or have erased from one’s criminal record.
Examples of felonies include:
- Property crimes, including:
- Grand theft;
- Arson; and
- Drug crimes, including:
- Selling; or
- Trafficking drugs;
- Sex crimes, including:
- Sexual assault;
- Some cases of sexual abuse; and
- Human trafficking;
- Violent offenses, including:
- First-degree murder;
- Second-degree murder (murders may also be called homicides in some jurisdictions);
- Child abuse; and
- White-collar crimes, including:
- Securities fraud;
- Forgery; and
- Tax evasion.
It is also important to note that certain offenses may be charged as felonies or misdemeanors, depending on the state’s law and the offense’s circumstances. Examples include:
Some of these offenses may be eligible for expungement or removal from an individual’s criminal record. Expungement processes and requirements vary by jurisdiction, so it may be helpful to consult with an attorney for advice regarding how to have a conviction expunged.
Certain offenses, such as speeding and moving violations, are considered infractions. Violations of these laws only affect an individual’s driving record, not their criminal record.
There is also a separate category for juvenile crimes, which are crimes that are committed by minors. Juvenile justice adjudicates these crimes separately.
Depending on where the crime occurred, someone can be charged with different types of crimes. There can be some confusion, however, over whether the offense will be prosecuted under state or federal law. To learn more, contact a criminal defense attorney in your area who specializes in both state and federal criminal law.
Metropolitan areas such as those in Los Angeles, Atlanta, or Northern New Jersey may have a mix of criminal activity occurring. Other states may have unique criminal laws that seem unfamiliar to us. For example, Massachusetts criminal law outlaws dueling and has two types of assault and battery, with one relating to general assault and battery and one that is due to debt collecting.
These laws are rather specific and may not exist in other parts of the country, so it’s important to check your local laws to determine if your criminal action falls under a specific statute.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance With Criminal Charges?
It is in your best interest to hire a criminal lawyer if you are facing criminal charges. Lawyers can help you understand how your state classifies crimes. Criminal consequences directly depend on whether the charges are for an infraction, misdemeanor, or felony. Even with certain infractions, you may need a lawyer to guide you through the court system and defend you.