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Classifying Crimes

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What are the Different Ways of Classifying Crimes?

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: infraction, misdemeanor, and felony crimes.  Infractions are the least serious offenses, while felonies are the most serious types of crimes.

Classifying crimes in this way helps make the criminal system more efficient and can help the public understand the impact of various crimes 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. They are typically punishable only by small fines, and no jail time is issued for an infraction. Since there is no jail sentence involved, infraction charges generally do not involve a jury trial. Also, the defendant may not be provided with an attorney, and a prosecutor may not be present at the hearings.

Some common types of infractions include:

  • Traffic violations
  • “Petty” crimes like petty theft, shoplifting, or jaywalking
  • Violations involving the public, such as disorderly conduct or noise violations
  • In some states, minor drug crimes are classified as infractions or traffic violations (such as possessing a small amount of marijuana for personal use)

With many infractions, the offender may also have to attend mandatory courses such as traffic school.

What’s a “Misdemeanor”?

Misdemeanors are considered the next most serious offense when classifying crimes.  Misdemeanor charges can result in criminal fines (usually less than $1,000), and a jail sentence for a maximum of one year.  The jail sentence is served at a county jail facility rather than a federal prison facility. 

As with infractions, offenders may also be required to attend educational or rehabilitation programs.  Parole or probation can also be prescribed for persons charged with a misdemeanor.  Some examples of misdemeanors include:

  • 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.)

What is a Felony?

Felony crimes are the most serious types of crimes.  They usually involve serious harm to the public, such as violent conduct, or distribution of drugs.  Felony charges can result in heavy fines (greater than $1,000), and a prison sentence of at least one year.  Felony charges are the most difficult to have expunged or erased from one’s criminal record. 

Examples of felonies include:

  • Murder and other homicide crimes
  • Rape and other sexual assault crimes
  • Manufacture and/or distribution of drugs
  • Crimes involving gun possession or other deadly weapons

Note that some misdemeanors can be “elevated” to the status of a felony offense given certain conditions.  For example, assault is usually a misdemeanor charge.  However, if the assault is committed against a police officer, or with the use of a deadly weapon, then the misdemeanor charges are elevated to felony charges. 

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.  Your lawyer can help you understand your state’s way of classifying crimes.  This is very important, because criminal consequences directly depend on whether the charges are for an infraction, misdemeanor, or a felony.  Even with certain infractions, a lawyer may be needed to guide you through the court system and defend you in court.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 10-13-2015 06:01 PM PDT

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