A misdemeanor crime is a type of criminal offense that is more serious than a citation but less serious than felony charges. They are less serious to moderate crimes that are associated with less serious punishments. In most states, the main distinguishing feature of a misdemeanor is that it is usually punishable by a sentence of one year maximum in a county jail facility (not a state prison facility, which is usually reserved for felony charges).
A broad range of crimes are classified as misdemeanors. Misdemeanor crimes can range from assault and battery to property crimes and other violations. State laws may vary widely with regards to which crimes are classified as misdemeanors.
Some states have a category of crimes called “wobblers”. These are crimes that can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies, depending on the circumstances (for instance, depending on the severity of injury or the value of property damaged or stolen). Some states such as California, Connecticut, and Virginia have wobbler categories, whereas many states like Alabama do not have wobbler classifications.
- What are Some Common Examples of Misdemeanors?
- What are “Unclassified” Misdemeanors?
- What is a Gross Misdemeanor?
- What is the Punishment for a Misdemeanor?
- What are the Legal Penalties Associated with Each Misdemeanor Class?
- Are There Any Defenses to Misdemeanors?
- Can I Also be Liable in a Civil Lawsuit for a Misdemeanor Crime?
- Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with a Misdemeanor Charge?
As mentioned, the term “misdemeanor” can include a very wide range of criminal offenses and violations. These can include:
- Traffic offenses, especially those involving DUI or drunk driving;
- Assault and battery and other relatively minor offenses involving bodily harm;
- Theft, larceny, and other similar crimes involving property;
- Possession of a controlled substance and various drug crimes;
- Perjury crimes
- Obscenity and other related crimes
- Gun possession violations
Again, each state may list different crimes in their misdemeanor statutes and laws. If you are unsure of the classification of a particular violation in your area, you may need to consult with a criminal lawyer.
Generally, most state criminal laws will classify misdemeanors into classes, such as Class A, Class B, or Class 1, Class 2, etc. These are usually based on the seriousness 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.
Some states may actually have a separate category called “Unclassified Misdemeanors”, which usually includes crimes that are too unique or that involve new legal issues, or that are not very serious in nature. Examples of unclassified misdemeanors might include minor gambling crimes, less-serious misdemeanors like littering, and various traffic offenses. Again these will depend on individual state laws.
Gross misdemeanors are criminal offenses that are more serious than regular misdemeanors. These will usually result in more severe penalties than normal. The definition or classification of gross misdemeanors depends on state laws. They typically involve crimes such as drunk driving, “aggravated” assault (more serious assault cases, such as those involving a deadly weapon), and crimes involving repeated behavior (such as stalking).
While gross misdemeanors are more serious in nature, they are still usually considered less serious than felony crimes. Crimes classified as gross misdemeanors in one state might not be considered serious crimes in other states.
Criminal punishments for misdemeanor crimes can involve a mix of both jail time (in a county jail facility, not a state prison facility), as well as criminal fines. For the jail sentences, they will usually carry a sentence of one year maximum in jail. Criminal fines are typically capped at $1,000, though again this can vary by state.
Consequences for criminal misdemeanor charges may also depend on the exact type of violation involved. For instance, for a misdemeanor graffiti sentence, the defendant may be required to perform community clean up and/or write a letter of apology to the affected property owner. In contrast, punishments for drunk driving can involve mandatory DUI classes (traffic school) and other measures. These can be added on top of the fines and/or jail sentence.
Legal penalties for misdemeanors usually depend on the classification of the misdemeanor. That is, classes of misdemeanors are associated with set penalties in most cases. For instance, a typical penal code might suggest the following penalties for each misdemeanor class:
- Class A or 1: Up to one year in county jail, and/or fines of up to $2,500;
- Class B or 2: Up to six months in jail, and/or fines of up to $1,000;
- Class C or 3: Up to 3 months in jail and/or fines of up to $500;
- Class D or 4: Up to 30 days in jail and/or fines of up to $250.
Again, each state may have different names for the classes. Punishments will depend on state laws as well as the circumstances surrounding each case. A common example of this is that repeat offenders will usually face higher misdemeanor penalties than a first-time offender for the same time of crime. In some cases, states may specifically list a distinct punishment for a certain crime, even if it is classified in a set misdemeanor category.
Criminal defenses to misdemeanor crimes can exist and may apply in many situations. The type of defense raised will obviously depend on the type of misdemeanor. Some common defenses to misdemeanors include:
- Lack of Evidence: All crimes require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution cannot prove the elements of a crime, or if they lack sufficient evidence for proof, it may serve as a defense;
- Intoxication: It can sometimes be a defense if the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the crime. This is a common defense in cases where it must be shown that the defendant acted intentionally (the argument is that the intoxication affected their ability to act intentionally);
- Coercion/Duress: If the defendant was forced to commit the crime under threat of harm or injury, it can serve as a defense to some misdemeanors (for instance, if a person is held a knife point and told to assault someone);
- Self-Defense: Many cases involving bodily injury (such as battery) may involve self-defense. In order to raise this defense, the defendant usually must only use a reasonable or proportionate amount of force, and they can’t be the one to initiate the use of force.
Various other defenses may be raised. These will depend on a whole host of factors, including individual state laws.
In many instances, a person facing misdemeanor criminal charges may also face a civil lawsuit for damages by the victim. This is common for cases such as theft where the victim is seeking additional compensation for losses caused by the crime.
In most cases, if the defendant was found guilty of the crime in criminal court, or if they entered a no contest plea, they will likely be found liable in a civil court of law. This is because the standard of proof is higher in criminal courts than it is in civil courts.
While relatively less serious than other types of crimes, misdemeanor charges can still be serious and some of them may be complex in nature. You may need to hire a criminal lawyer in your area if you need help with a case. Your attorney can provide legal research to determine your rights under the laws of your state. They can also represent you during trial and other important proceedings.