The Most Common Categories of Criminal Offenses
At both the state and the federal level, most crimes are identified as either misdemeanors or felonies. (Offenses known as “infractions” are technically not criminal offenses. They don’t require you to appear in court; they won’t appear on a criminal record; and they carry no punishment more than a fine.) What are the differences between a misdemeanor and a felony? Can the same crime be either a misdemeanor or a felony? What are some common examples of misdemeanors and felonies?
What Is a Felony?
Broadly speaking, felonies are considered far more serious violations of the law than misdemeanors. At the federal level, a felony is any crime that carries a potential sentence of more than one year of incarceration. The definition of a felony varies among the states. (Two states–Maine and New Jersey–opt not to use the term “felony” to describe more serious crimes.) In most states, a felony is defined by either the length of incarceration (generally a year or more) or the place of incarceration (typically a prison, rather than a jail). In those states that have the death penalty, crimes that may subject a person to a death sentence are considered felonies.
Within the federal system, and in many states, felonies are further classified based on the term of incarceration, with Class A felonies typically carrying the most severe sentences (life imprisonment or the death penalty) and Class E felonies being the least severe, with a sentence of one to five years.
If convicted of a felony, you lose a certain number of rights, including:
- The right to vote
- The right to hold public office
- The right to bear arms
- The right to hold a professional license
Criminal violations commonly charged as felonies include homicide, burglary, robbery, kidnapping, rape, and arson.
What Is a Misdemeanor?
A misdemeanor is more serious than an infraction but less so than a felony. Under federal law, misdemeanors carry a sentence of less than one year, the term typically being served in a jail, as opposed to a prison. Though defendants in misdemeanor prosecutions typically don’t have the right to have an attorney appointed for them (if they cannot afford one), there is a greater degree of latitude and flexibility in both sentencing and plea bargaining when a person faces a misdemeanor charge.
Some crimes that are normally treated as a misdemeanor may rise to the level of felony in certain circumstances. For example, DUI is usually a misdemeanor, but in some states, a person can be charged with felony DUI after a certain number of prior convictions. Additionally, some crimes, such as larceny, assault, or drug possession, may be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, based on the severity of the crime.
Crimes typically charged as misdemeanors include petty theft, simple assault, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, trespassing, possession of marijuana, and shoplifting.