Criminal offenses that carry a penalty of jail time fall under two categories: felonies and misdemeanors. Felonies can result in a term of imprisonment of one year or more. Misdemeanors are less serious offenses and can result in a term of imprisonment of up to a year.
Misdemeanors can consist of “regular” misdemeanors as well as more serious “gross misdemeanors.” Gross misdemeanors carry greater penalties than regular misdemeanors.
Gross misdemeanors do not have a fixed definition. Rather, state criminal codes outline what crimes gross misdemeanors. A gross misdemeanor in one state may not be considered a gross misdemeanor in another state.
There are certain characteristics of gross misdemeanors that separate them from less serious, “regular” misdemeanors. Frequently, gross misdemeanors involve a criminal defendant’s engaging in reckless behavior, which shows a disregard for others’ safety. Examples include:
- Driving under the influence (DUI): The law regards driving while under the influence as threatening the public safety;
- Aggravated assault: Simple assault is defined as intentional conduct that causes a victim to fear an imminent harmful or offensive touching. Aggravated assault contains the same requirements. In addition, aggravated assault consists of physical actions that cause serious bodily harm. These actions include an assault with a deadly weapon (i.e., a knife or a gun). Aggravated assault also includes the assault of a vulnerable victim, such as a child; and
- Repeated stalking: State criminal laws define stalking as behavior that is intentional (on purpose), unwelcome, and harassing or annoying. The behavior must have been put the victim in actual and reasonable fear of their safety. Stalking consists of repeated unwanted or threatening messages, following or menacing, vandalism, and other unwanted behaviors.
Not all gross misdemeanors involve reckless behavior. Some consist of acts that are more serious than simple misdemeanors, but less serious than acts that are felonies.
For example, petty theft — theft of property with a low value — can be considered a gross misdemeanor. Petty theft is a more serious offense than a simple misdemeanor such as a simple assault. However, petty theft is less serious than felonies, which can significantly threaten people (e.g., robbery, rape, mayhem) or property (e.g., arson, burglary).
Not all states divide crimes into regular misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. Instead, some states classify misdemeanors by class. Classes of misdemeanors are each assigned a letter (i.e., “Class A Misdemeanor,” “Class B Misdemeanor”).
Generally, the higher the letter grade (that is, the closer the letter is to “A” in the alphabet), the more serious the crime and the greater the penalties.
In addition, some state criminal laws contain “unclassified misdemeanors.” Unclassified misdemeanors contain a combination of more serious and less serious misdemeanors. The more serious unclassified misdemeanors include acts such as aggravated unlicensed driving or reckless driving. These crimes can be the equivalent of other states’ “gross misdemeanors” or “Class A” misdemeanors.
Less serious unclassified misdemeanors include crimes such as minor gambling or littering. These crimes can be the equivalent of other states’ “regular misdemeanors,” or misdemeanors below the level of “Class A.”
Generally, gross misdemeanors and serious misdemeanors carry the following penalties:
- Jail time of up to a year: More serious offenses carry greater jail sentences than less serious ones;
- Fines: More serious offenses result in higher fine amounts than less serious offenses; and
- Restitution: In addition to sentencing a defendant to a time in jail and assessing files, a court may also that the defendant pay restitution to the victim. Restitution is monetary compensation for financial losses suffered by a victim as the result of the crime.
A court may impose all of these penalties, some of them, or only one. The state criminal code that defines the offense also describes the punishment for that offense.
Criminal defendants are entitled to due process rights. These rights include the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. Due process also requires that the prosecution prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
Even if each element of the crime is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, a defendant may plead criminal defenses to the charges. Criminal defenses are legitimate excuses or justifications for criminal activity. Successfully asserting a defense may result in reduction of penalties. In some cases, a successful defense may result in a finding of not guilty.
Common defenses to gross misdemeanors include:
If you are facing gross or serious misdemeanor charges, you may wish to consult with a criminal defense lawyer. An experienced criminal defense lawyer near you can assess the facts and circumstances of your case. This attorney can also advise you as to what defenses you may have to the gross or serious misdemeanor charge.
In addition, the attorney can recommend various options. These options include, for example, whether to enter into a plea agreement or pursue your case to trial.