What Is a Misdemeanor?

How Misdemeanors Differ From Infractions and Felonies

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Question: What Is a Misdemeanor?

A misdemeanor is a "lesser" crime in the United States with less severe penalties than felonies, but more severe punishments than infractions. Generally, misdemeanors are crimes for which the maximum sentence is 12 months or less.

Many states have laws that establish different levels or classifications for misdemeanors, such as Class 1, Class 2, etc. The most severe classes are those that are punishable by jail time, while the other classifications are misdemeanors for which the maximum sentence does not include incarceration.

Misdemeanor sentences of incarceration are usually served in the local city or county jail, while felony sentences are served in prison. Most misdemeanor sentences, however, usually involve paying a fine and doing community service or serving probation.

Except in a very few states, people convicted of misdemeanors do not lose any civil rights, as convicted felons do, but can be prohibited from getting certain jobs.

Classifications Differ by State

It is up to each state to determine specifically which behaviors are criminal and then classify the behavior based on a set of parameters and the severity of the crime. Examples of how states differ when determining crimes and penalties is outlined below with the marijuana and drunk driving laws in different states.

Marijuana Laws

There are significant differences in laws governing marijuana from one state, city or country to another and from state and federal perceptions.

While Alaska, Arizona, California and 20 other states have legalized (or decriminalized) the personal use of medical marijuana, other states including Washington, Oregon, and Colorado have legalized recreational and medical marijuana. A handful of states including Alabama (any amount is a misdemeanor) and Arkansas (less than 4 oz.

is a misdemeanor) consider the possession of (specific amounts) of marijuana as a misdemeanor.

Drunk Driving Laws

Each state has different laws governing drunk driving (driving while intoxicated - DWI or Operating Under the Influence - OUI) including the legal limits, number of DWI offenses, and the penalties.

In most states, a person who receives their first or second DUI is charged with a misdemeanor while the third or subsequent offense is a felony. However, in some states if there is property damage or someone is hurt, the penalty jumps to a felony.

Others states, for example Maryland, consider all DUI offenses as misdemeanors and New Jersey classifies DUIs as a violation, and not a crime.

What is the Difference Between Infractions and Misdemeanors?

Sometimes people will refer to their crime as, "just a misdemeanor," and while being charged with a misdemeanor is less serious than being charged with a felony, it is still a very serious charge that if found guilty, could result in jail time, heavy fines, community service and probation. There are also legal feels that should be considered.

Also, failure to follow any of the court ordered conditions of a misdemeanor conviction will result in more misdemeanor charges and even heavier fines, possibly more jail time and extended probation and legal fees.

Being charged with an infraction is a lot less serious than a misdemeanor and the penalties usually involve paying a ticket or small fine and never result in jail time unless there is a failure to pay the fine. Also, people found guilty of an infraction are not ordered to perform community service or attend problem-specific programs such as Alcoholic Anonymous or anger management.

Criminal Record

Misdemeanor convictions appear on a person's criminal record. It also may be legally required to disclose the particularities of the crime during job interviews, on college applications, when applying for the military or government jobs, and on loan applications.

Infractions may appear on a person's driving record, but not on their criminal record.

Misdemeanor Penalties

The penalties for a person convicted of a misdemeanor depends on several factors including the severity of the crime, if it is a first time offense or if the person is a repeat offender and if it was a violent or non-violent offense.

Depending on the crime, misdemeanor convictions will rarely result in more than one year in the city or county jail. For petty misdemeanor convictions the jail sentence could fall between 30 to 90 days.

Most misdemeanor convictions also result in a fine up to $1,000 although for repeat offenders or for violent crimes the fine can increase up to $3,000. Sometimes a judge may impose both the jail time and a fine.

If the misdemeanor involved property damage or financial loss to a victim, then the judge may order restitution. The restitution can include court costs. Also, a court may suspend the sentence and place the defendant on probation.