Massachusetts Misdemeanor Crimes and Sentences

Learn which crimes are considered misdemeanors in Massachusetts, how sentencing works, and typical penalties for these less-serious crimes.

Massachusetts law treats any crime as a misdemeanor if it doesn’t carry potential punishment of incarceration in state prison or death. (That punishment would make a crime a felony in Massachusetts.) The state doesn’t group misdemeanors into different classes for purposes of sentencing. Instead, the criminal statutes for individual crimes spell out the potential penalties—which in turn determine whether the crimes are misdemeanors. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 274, § 1 (2020)).

Massachusetts Penalties for Misdemeanors and Attempted Misdemeanors

In most states, jail time for misdemeanors is usually limited to a year or less. In Massachusetts, however, misdemeanors may be punished by as much as 30 months in jail or a house of corrections (and/or a fine).

A defendant who’s convicted of attempting to commit a misdemeanor other than theft may be sentenced to up to a year of incarceration or fined up to $300; attempted theft is punishable by up to 30 months incarceration and/or a fine (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 274, § 6 (2020)).

How Misdemeanor Sentencing Works in Massachusetts

Usually, a Massachusetts law will simply give the maximum jail time and maximum fine for a misdemeanor, and the judge may impose any sentence that doesn’t exceed the maximum.

However, there are a few misdemeanors that carry minimum sentences as well. For instance, violating a domestic abuse protective order in Massachusetts is generally punishable by up to 30 months in jail or a house of correction and/or a maximum fine of $5,000. However, if the defendant committed the violation in retaliation for being reported for not paying child support, the minimum sentence is 60 days incarceration; in addition, the defendant must be fined at least $1,000, up to $10,000. (Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 109A, § 7 (2020).)

In some misdemeanor cases, Massachusetts provides sentencing alternatives to jail, including:

  • a suspended sentence, meaning that the judge hands down a jail sentence but suspends that sentence as long as the defendant meets the conditions of probation (including paying a fine); and
  • what’s known as a “special sentence of imprisonment,” which allows certain defendants to serve all of part of a jail sentence on weekends and legal holidays.

(Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 279, §§ 1, 6A (2020).)

Examples of Misdemeanor Sentences in Massachusetts

Misdemeanors in Massachusetts (and their penalties) include:

  • assault or assault and battery that doesn’t result in serious injury (up to 30 months incarceration and/or a fine of up to $1,000)
  • criminal harassment (up to 30 months and/or a $1,000 fine)
  • theft—known as larceny in Massachusetts—of property other than a gun worth $1,200 or less (up to one year in jail or a fine of $1,500)
  • driving under the influence (up to 30 months incarceration and/or a fine of between $500 and $5,000)
  • a first-offense for possession of heroin (up to two years incarceration and/or a $2,000 fine), and
  • reckless driving (two weeks to two years incarceration and/or a $20-$200 fine).

(Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 90, § 24; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 94C, § 34; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 265, §§ 13A(a), 43A; Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 266, § 30 (2020).)

Criminal Statute of Limitations

Prosecutors have a time limit (known as a statute of limitations) for filing charges against a defendant. The time period starts when the alleged crime took place. In Massachusetts, the criminal statute of limitations for misdemeanors is generally six years.

The Value of Good Representation

Even though a misdemeanor conviction isn’t as serious as a felony conviction, it can still have negative consequences—including substantial time in jail time and more severe penalties if you have another conviction in the future. And some misdemeanor convictions make immigrants subject to deportation.

So if you’re facing misdemeanor charges, you should speak to a criminal defense lawyer who can explain how the law applies to your situation, negotiate a plea bargain if that's appropriate under the circumstances, represent you at trial if it comes to that, and protect your rights throughout the proceedings.

Look Out for Legal Changes

State legislatures can change their laws any time, but you can use this search tool to find the current version of any statute mentioned in this article. Be aware, however, that court opinions can affect how laws are interpreted and applied—another reason to speak with a knowledgeable attorney if you're concerned about actual or potential criminal charges.

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