In most states, the difference between a misdemeanor and felony is based on the potential sentence, with misdemeanors punishable by a year or less in jail and felonies punishable by more than a year in prison. Maryland laws designate crimes as misdemeanors or felonies, but some misdemeanors carry potential sentences of imprisonment for several years—even as long as 10 or 20 years—while the maximum sentences for a few felonies in Maryland are as short as a year. Moreover, you might be sentenced to state prison for a misdemeanor, depending on the length of your sentence and where you live.
Some minor violations of laws—such as many traffic violations, as well as possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana—are considered civil offenses rather than crimes. For these offenses, you only receive a citation and fine. (Md. Code, Crim Law § 5-601.1 (2020).)
The laws for each misdemeanor in Maryland establish the maximum allowable penalty for that crime—and sometimes a mandatory minimum penalty. Within those limits, it's up to the judge to decide the actual penalty to impose in any case after considering the circumstances of the crime, as well as the defendant's background. Maryland does have complicated sentencing guidelines and worksheets to help judges make that decision. Although judges must consider these guidelines, they aren't legally required to follow them. (Md. Code, Crim. Proc. § 6-216 (2020).)
For most misdemeanors, judges may impose fines, either alone or along with a sentence of incarceration.
If you're sentenced to incarceration for 12 months or less, you'll serve that time in local jail, unless you're sentenced in Baltimore City or you committed the crime while you were in prison. For a sentence between 12 and 18 months, the judge may order you to serve the time in local jail or state prison. Any sentence longer than 18 months, even if it's for a misdemeanor, would be served in state prison. (Md. Code, Corr. Serv. §§ 9-104, 9-105, 9-106 (2020).)
To give you an idea of the range of crimes that Maryland labels as misdemeanors—and the potential sentences for those crimes—here are a few examples:
(Md. Code, Crim. Law §§ 3-203, 3-602.1, 3-805, 4-306, 7-104, 10-201; Md. Code, Health-Gen. § 18-601 (2020).)
If you are convicted of a misdemeanor and have a previous conviction for the same crime, you may face stiffer penalties. Some laws simply increase the maximum allowable penalty, while others add a mandatory minimum sentence for a second or subsequent offense. For instance:
(Md. Code, Crim. Law § 4-203; Md. Code, Trans. § 21-902 (2020).)
Under some circumstances, Maryland judges may suspend all or part of sentence for incarceration and place the defendant on probation, with conditions. Those conditions may include home detention or successful completion of an inpatient drug or alcohol treatment. (Md. Code, Crim. Proc. §§ 6-219, 6-221, 6-225, 6-230 (2020).)
A "statute of limitations" is a deadline for starting legal proceedings—filing criminal charges or a civil lawsuit. In criminal cases, the time period starts when the alleged crime took place (although the "clock" may pause under certain limited circumstances). For misdemeanors, the criminal statute of limitations in Maryland is generally one year, but there are many exceptions. For example, charges for misdemeanor theft may be brought within two years, and the statute of limitations for computer crimes is three years. (Md. Code, Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 5-106 (2020); Md. Code, Crim. Law § 7-104 (2020).)
A conviction for a misdemeanor crime in Maryland can have serious consequences. In addition to the possibility of a long prison sentence for more serious misdemeanors, conviction for even a minor crime can hurt you when you're looking for a job or an apartment. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can determine whether you have any grounds for dismissal of the charges against you, explore plea options, or represent you at trial. Only someone familiar with the local criminal court system and cases like yours will know how good your chances are for a favorable outcome in court or at the negotiating table. A knowledgeable attorney will take all of this into consideration, help you make decisions about your case, and protect your rights.
Look Out for Legal Changes
States can change their laws at any time. You can find the current version of any statute mentioned in this article by using this search tool from the Library of Congress. But you should also know that court opinions can affect how judges interpret and apply the law, which is another reason to consult a lawyer if you're worried about actual or potential criminal charges.