In criminal law, offenses are classified as either misdemeanors or felonies. Felony crimes are the most serious criminal offenses possible, while misdemeanor offenses are considered less serious. All states and the federal government recognize the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies, though there are significant differences in how they categorize and punish individual crimes.
A misdemeanor crime is one for which the potential jail sentence is less than one year. Any crime that provides for a potential incarceration sentence of a year or more is categorized as a felony. Misdemeanor crimes include simple assault, shoplifting, trespassing, disorderly conduct, and other low-level offenses.
However, each state classifies crimes as it sees fit, and what would be a misdemeanor crime in one might be a felony in another. For example, some states make it a felony to be convicted of a second drunk driving crime, or DUI, within 5 years of the first, while others punish second-time DUI as a misdemeanor. Whether a particular offense is classified as a misdemeanor or a felony depends entirely on that state's determination of the seriousness of the offense.
Misdemeanor or Felony: Depending on the Facts or the Defendant's Record
It's also important to note that some offenses can be charged as either a misdemeanor or felony. For example, if you steal something you can be charged with a misdemeanor or felony theft crime depending on the value of the property. The laws of your state establish a dollar value that marks the boundary between felony and misdemeanor offense. If that boundary is, say, $500, you can be charged with a misdemeanor if you steal something that is less valuable than this limit. Anything valued at over that limit makes the crime a felony.
Similarly, an offense that would normally be a misdemeanor can be elevated to felony status depending on quantity (such as the amount of illegal drugs possessed or sold), the use of a dangerous weapon, injury to another in the course of the underlying offense, or prior convictions on the defendant's record. (In some instances, however, these factors will augment the sentence, rather than bump the offense to a felony.)
Misdemeanor or Felony: "Wobbler" Offenses in California
As explained above, a crime is a misdemeanor or a felony by virtue of the length of its sentence--sentences of a year or more generally make a crime a felony, while sentences of less than a year indicate that the offense is a misdemeanor. Most laws include the sentence for the crime, so by learning the sentence, you know whether the crime is a misdemeanor or felony.
But a few states, including Arizona, California, and Indiana, have created a group of crimes that can be punished either by time in state prison or in the county jail. Under the California scheme, the characterization of the crime depends on the ultimate punishment meted out. Such crimes "wobble" between misdemeanor and felony; when the defendant is sentenced to state prison, the offense is a felony, but when the sentence is to county jail, it becomes a misdemeanor. In California, all such offenses start out as presumed felonies, unless the prosecutor charges them as misdemeanors. California judges can reduce a felony conviction for a wobbler offense to a misdemeanor at sentencing; in some states, courts can reduce the conviction to a misdemeanor when the defendant successfully completes probation.
Even though misdemeanors are considered a less serious type of crime than felonies, that doesn't mean a person convicted of a misdemeanor faces lenient penalties. Misdemeanors can come with some fairly significant consequences that can seriously impact the life of anyone convicted of them. The particular penalties possible for any misdemeanor conviction vary greatly depending on the states and the nature of the crime, though they typically involve one or more of the following punishments.
Jail. Misdemeanor offenses can be punished with up to a year in a county or city jail. However, even if the possible sentence for a misdemeanor offense is up to a year, that doesn't necessarily mean the court will impose the maximum sentence. A court might, for example, sentence someone convicted of a misdemeanor to 30 days in jail even though state law permits a maximum sentence of up to a year.
Fines. Misdemeanor convictions will also typically involve some kind of fine, though the amount of the fine can differ significantly. Some minor misdemeanor offenses come with fines of as little as $50, while other misdemeanors may involve fines of $1,000, $2,000, or more.
Restitution. Misdemeanors that involve property damage or victims who lost money or suffered damages will also include restitution orders. Restitution is money the convicted person has to pay to compensate the victim for anything lost, or for damages the victim incurred. These orders can also include paying for prosecution costs or other court fees.
Probation. It's also possible to be sentenced to probation if you are convicted of a misdemeanor offense (some felony offenses can also have a probation alternative). Probation for misdemeanors typically lasts at least 12 months, during which time anyone on probation has to comply with court ordered conditions. These require the person on probation to refrain from committing more crimes, reporting to a probation officer, paying all fines or restitution in the case, or performing community service, though individual conditions can differ significantly from case to case.
Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences by State Law
Find your state from the list below to get specific information regarding misdemeanor crimes more relevant to you.
Any licensed attorney is capable of acting as a criminal defendant's attorney. However, some attorneys specialize exclusively in representing criminal defendants. These lawyers are referred to as criminal lawyers or criminal defense attorneys. Some criminal defense attorneys work for the government as public defenders (or are "panel attorneys," paid by the government to represent indigent defendants). Other defense attorneys are privately hired by criminal defendants.
Any time you are charged with a crime you have the right to be represented by an attorney, even if you can't afford to hire one. The court will appoint the public defender, or assign a panel attorney to represent you.
There are also attorneys who work for the government, whose job it is to prosecute crimes. These attorneys also specialize in criminal law and work for the government as local or state prosecutors, state's attorneys, or federal prosecutors (known as United States Attorneys).
Find an Attorney Near You
The criminal justice process involves very specific laws, procedures, and rules that criminal lawyers spend their professional lives focusing on. If you are charged with any type of misdemeanor crime, a local criminal defense attorney is the only person who is qualified to give you legal advice about your case. These attorneys not only know the laws that apply to you, but also understand how to evaluate the facts of your case in light of their experience with local prosecutors, police, judges, and the local criminal justice system. If you have a question about the laws in your area or need legal advice about a criminal case, you need to find an experienced attorney near you.