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When an individual is found guilty of a crime, the consequences depend on how it is classified according to state and federal laws. There are three general classifications for criminal offenses used in the United States – infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. Here’s an overview of what each classification means, what type of penalties or sentencing to expect, and common examples.

What is an infraction?

Infractions are criminal offenses that are mild enough not to warrant jail time. In most cases, the punishment involves paying a fine. Also known as petty offenses, this type of crime doesn’t require court attendance and there’s no trial to determine guilt or innocence. Nor would a defendant need to hire a lawyer to resolve the penalty charges.

Examples of infractions

Infractions are generally crimes that disrupt society or violate local laws. Here are some of the most common:

  • Speeding while driving
  • Running a stop sign
  • Littering
  • Violation of building codes

What is a misdemeanor?

Misdemeanors are more serious than infractions, but they aren’t considered as severe as felony crimes. A defendant who’s convicted of a misdemeanor can be sentenced to up to one year in county jail. These criminal offenses can also come with other types of penalties such as a fine, community service, probation, or restitution, but the maximum punishment will never exceed one year in jail.

Examples of misdemeanors

Misdemeanors are sometimes similar to felonies, but they involve a lesser offense. For example, where aggravated assault (assault that leads to serious injuries or involves weapons) is usually a felony, simple assault (assault involving threatening words or actions or minor injuries) is classed as a misdemeanor in most states.

Here are some examples of misdemeanor offenses:

  • Public intoxication
  • Vandalism
  • Shoplifting
  • Petty theft
  • Indecent exposure
  • Trespassing

What is a felony?

Felony

Federal law defines a felony as an offense that can carry a punishment of over 12 months in prison without parole. This can range from one year to a life sentence. In extremely severe cases in states that allow capital punishment, a judge may issue a death sentence.

Felonies are serious crimes that can have long-term consequences, not just for the person committing the act, but also for any victims. Accomplices to a felony crime can also be handed a severe sentence.

Because of the nature of this type of criminal offense, there are also repercussions in addition to the actual sentence that needs to be served. For example, felony offenders can lose some of their civil rights, such as the right to own firearms. A felony charge is also likely to stay on the offender’s record for the rest of their life.

Examples of felony crimes

Most violent crimes and offenses that put others in harm’s way are classed as felonies.

  • Murder
  • Rape
  • Arson
  • Kidnapping
  • Manslaughter
  • Felony assault
  • Illegal drug manufacturing
  • Drug distribution
  • Grand theft
  • Armed robbery
  • Elder abuse
  • Animal cruelty

Subcategories for misdemeanors and felonies

The federal criminal code and most states define different classes or levels of misdemeanors and felonies. For misdemeanors, the offense is either a class A, B, C, D, or E misdemeanor crime. These categories can also be called level 1, level 2, and level 3, and so on. Some states use unique terms to grade the severity of the misdemeanor, such as gross, petty, or high misdemeanor.

States break down felony crimes in a similar way. Also, a capital felony is one that warrants a life sentence or the death penalty.

Not all states follow these classifications. In fact, a couple of states – Maine and New Jersey – don’t classify criminal offenses at all.

Others use the three primary classifications for criminal offenses – infraction, misdemeanor, and felony – but they then assign specific punishments based on the crime instead of using subcategories. For example, one state legislature’s statute might determine that someone who shoplifts and is found guilty of the misdemeanor would face up to 180 days in jail and a $2500 fine, where a vandalism conviction could come with up to a 90-day sentence and a $1000 fine. In a state that uses subcategories, both of these misdemeanors could fall under the same class or grade, and so the maximum penalties would be the same.

What are felony-misdemeanors?

Some states use a fourth classification known as felony-misdemeanors. These are crimes that can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony, which means they can be punishable by up to one year, or by 12 months or more. They are also referred to as “wobblers.”

With this type of criminal offense, either the judge or the prosecutor will decide which direction to go in. Wobbler crimes are considered misdemeanors that are on the cusp of being classed as a felony or vice versa. Arson, domestic violence, driving under the influence, and assault are all examples of wobblers.

The exact rules over how to prosecute a wobbler crime depend on state laws, but in general, having this classification gives prosecutors and judges more flexibility over how to determine a suitable punishment. They may look at factors such as the circumstances of the crime and the defendant’s criminal history to decide a reasonable penalty. Because the case could go either way, it’s critical to have an experienced criminal defense attorney on your side.

If you’re charged with a misdemeanor or felony, are you definitely going to jail?

No, being convicted of either one of these types of criminal offenses doesn’t guarantee time spent behind bars. A misdemeanor can lead to up to a year of jail time, but it can also be resolved with a fine and community service, or another less severe penalty.

The same goes for felony charges. A judge may sentence a felony offender to probation, which can involve reporting to a probation officer, required community service, and obeying all laws. For drug charges, the individual may also undergo drug testing and treatment. While probation is an alternative to jail time, an offender who doesn’t adhere to all the requirements can be sent to jail.

Don’t face a criminal charge alone

If you could be charged with a misdemeanor or felony offense, get the help you need. The experienced criminal law team at Geoff Heim Attorney, LLC  will work to protect your rights and ensure you get the best outcome possible given the circumstances of your case. Reach out today. Call 719-636-8955 or contact us online.

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Disclaimer: The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship.