Understanding the Lesser Criminal Violations
Within the criminal justice system, there are degrees of crimes, with felonies considered the most egregious. Among the less serious offenses, violations of the law are generally identified as either infractions or misdemeanors. Infractions and misdemeanors generally involve violation of different types of rules or laws, and violations result in different types and levels of punishment.
What Is an Infraction?
Infractions are less severe than misdemeanors. They generally lead to only a fine and are not punishable by incarceration. Typically, the maximum fine is $250 or less. In most jurisdictions, infractions are not considered criminal offenses and do not create a criminal record (or appear on an existing one). They are customarily violations of local (city or county) ordinances and can also include minor traffic offenses. Laws vary significantly from one location to another, but some common infractions are:
- Speeding tickets (other than at speeds that constitute reckless driving or reckless endangerment)
- Tailgating (trailing another motor vehicle too closely)
- Parking violations
- Noise violations
- Failure to yield to a pedestrian
- So-called “fix-it” tickets for equipment violations, such as defective or broken lights, signals, or horn
- Housing or zoning violations, often tied to rental properties
- Failing to use a turn signal when required
- Violating a leash law
- Fishing without a license
Because an infraction won’t subject you to any probationary period, it won’t affect your ability to get or keep a job. In most instances, you won’t have to appear in court; you can simply pay the fine. You can always appear in court, though, and challenge the charge, if necessary.
How Is a Misdemeanor Different from an Infraction?
First and foremost, a misdemeanor is a criminal offense, with the potential for not only fines but jail time as well. Misdemeanors generally do not result in incarceration for more than one year—that’s what distinguishes them from felonies. Fines for misdemeanors are usually significantly higher than for infractions, though. Maximum misdemeanor fines vary by state and offense but can be thousands of dollars.
Because a misdemeanor is a criminal violation, it may appear on your criminal record. Misdemeanors must always be resolved in a court of law. That doesn’t mean that you have to appear in court—you can have your lawyer appear on your behalf.
Local, state, and even federal laws categorize certain actions as misdemeanors, including the following:
- Certain minor drug violations, such as simple possession or possession of drug paraphernalia
- Some moving traffic violations
- Driving without insurance or on a suspended or revoked license
- Theft crimes under a certain dollar amount in value, also known as “petty theft” or “petty larceny”
- Simple assault
- Animal cruelty, including dog fighting or breeding dogs to fight
- Minor domestic violence or abuse
- Disorderly conduct