What Is a Misdemeanor? Is a Misdemeanor a Crime? What Are the Consequences of a Misdemeanor Conviction?
Misdemeanors Compared to Other Legal Matters
Misdemeanors are lesser crimes, compared to felonies, which are more serious crimes that carry stiffer penalties. First, let’s look at what distinguishes a crime, such as a misdemeanor, from other legal cases known as “civil” matters:
- The parties—In a criminal case, such as a misdemeanor, the government, on behalf of its citizens, brings a legal case against the accused (“defendant”). In a civil lawsuit, the claim is brought by a private individual.
- The source of the law—In a criminal prosecution, the alleged wrong is defined by a written law, called a statute, enacted by a government entity, such as Congress, a state legislature or a city commission. In contrast, the law generally applicable in civil cases is known as “common law,” derived from the written opinions of judges throughout the centuries.
- The burden of proof—With criminal offenses, the prosecutor must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a civil lawsuit, the private individual must prove liability by “a preponderance of the evidence,” which means that the greater weight of the evidence must support the allegation of wrong, but liability need not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
- The penalties—In a criminal matter, sanctions include incarceration, fines, probation, restitution and community service. In a civil matter, the party filing the lawsuit may recover monetary compensation (damages) or, in limited situations, get the court to enforce a promise made by the defendant.
As a general rule, a misdemeanor is classified as a crime. As with all criminal offenses, the source of the law establishing misdemeanors is statutory, enacted by state, local or federal government. Furthermore, in a trial related to a misdemeanor charge, the case is brought to court by a prosecutor, who must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The penalties for being found “guilty,” or responsible for the commission of a misdemeanor, are incarceration, fines, community service, probation and restitution.
What Is a Misdemeanor? How Does It Differ from a Felony?
Though many states have multiple classes of misdemeanors (discussed below), the definition of misdemeanor is generally consistent across state lines. A misdemeanor is more serious than an “infraction,” which generally refers to a violation of law that carries no penalty other than a fine, such as a traffic violation. But misdemeanors are less serious than felonies.
As a general rule, misdemeanors are crimes that carry a potential jail sentence of no more than one year. Conviction of a felony can lead to a much longer sentence, including life in prison, or even capital punishment in some states. A misdemeanor conviction can also lead to a fine, probation, community service and/or restitution, but there are limits on those types of penalties. Conviction of a felony often carries a fine and probation but also can result in the loss of other privileges of citizenship, including the right to vote. In addition, most felonies require the prosecution to show the defendant intended to commit the criminal act, whereas you can be convicted of some misdemeanors based only on recklessness or carelessness (negligence).
Though both misdemeanors and felonies will appear on your criminal record, it’s customarily much easier to remove misdemeanor charges through expungement or sealing of your criminal record.
Some states, such as New Jersey, use different terminology—misdemeanors there are referred to as “disorderly persons offenses.” While the vast number of misdemeanors and misdemeanor prosecutions are at the state level, there are also federal crimes that are charged as misdemeanors.
What Are Some Common Misdemeanors?
Examples of misdemeanors include:
- Minor drug offenses, such as possession
- Drunk driving
- Petty theft, including shoplifting
- Minor or simple assault or battery
- Minor sex crimes, including solicitation, prostitution and indecent exposure
- Resisting arrest
- Some cybercrimes, including stalking or bullying
What Are the Different Classifications of Misdemeanors?
Many states classify misdemeanors, with varying levels of punishment for the different classes. Those schemes typically differentiate types of misdemeanors based on the dollar amount of the loss (property offenses) or the seriousness of the injury (bodily crimes against a person). A common approach is to categorize misdemeanors as Class 1, Class 2, Class 3 and Class 4, or, alternatively, Class A, Class B, Class C and Class D. In those jurisdictions, the Class 1/Class A misdemeanors are the most serious.
Another approach is to identify some misdemeanors as “gross misdemeanors,” which carry more serious penalties. A gross misdemeanor is still considered a minor crime, not rising to the level of a felony, but is treated differently than a regular misdemeanor.
The particular offenses classified as gross misdemeanors varies from one jurisdiction to the next, but the following are often considered more serious offenses:
- Violation of a domestic violence protective order
- Theft of property above a certain dollar value (but below the amount necessary for grand theft)
- DUI (driving under the influence) and DWI (driving while impaired or intoxicated)
Can a Misdemeanor Rise to the Level of a Felony?
There are criminal offenses that can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors, based on a number of factors:
- Amount of damages—For certain types of property crimes, a misdemeanor may be upgraded to a felony if damages exceeds a specific dollar amount. That’s the fundamental difference between petty larceny (a misdemeanor) and grand larceny (a felony).
- Status of the victim—Misdemeanors can be treated as felonies if committed against certain types of individuals, such as law enforcement officers, minors, elderly people or persons with diminished mental capacity.
- Evidence of aggravated behavior by the defendant—Some misdemeanors, such as assault, can be upgraded to a felony under certain circumstances, such as when a firearm is used in the commission of the offense, or when there’s an attempt to cause serious bodily harm or death.
- Prior criminal record of the defendant—Many states allow certain misdemeanors to rise to the level of felony for repeat offenders.
Contact GetLegal for Assistance in Finding the Right Lawyer
If you’ve been charged with a misdemeanor and need a qualified attorney to protect your rights, GetLegal has the tools to assist you. To learn how we can help, contact us online or call our offices at 877-359-7077.