Like many states, Minnesota distinguishes felonies from misdemeanors based on the amount of time a person could potentially spend behind bars. If a sentence allows incarceration for more than a year and up to life, the crime is a felony. Sentences of a year or less fall under the category of misdemeanors.
Minnesota divides its misdemeanor offenses into three categories: gross misdemeanors, misdemeanors, and petty misdemeanors. This article will discuss the penalty, sentencing, and expungement options for Minnesota misdemeanors.
Minnesota classifies misdemeanor penalties as follows:
Misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors include a wide range of offenses from low-level property crimes to assault, tampering with a witness, and child endangerment. Less serious offenses often fall under the misdemeanor category, while more serious offenses fall to the gross misdemeanor classification.
The seriousness of the offense might depend on the victim, level of harm, damage, or motive. For example, simple assault carries a misdemeanor sentence, but assault of a school official and assault motivated by bias are gross misdemeanors. Several misdemeanor crimes also increase to a gross misdemeanor when the offender has multiple prior convictions. Misdemeanor trespass becomes a gross misdemeanor when the offender has two prior trespass convictions.
Despite its name, petty misdemeanors are not technically crimes because there’s no possibility of incarceration. These offenses are more akin to what other states call infractions or violations, such as traffic tickets.
(Minn. Stat. §§ 609.02, 609.101 (2020).)
Judges have several options at their disposal when sentencing misdemeanor offenses. The law also allows prosecutors to offer a defendant a continuance for dismissal (or diversion), which presents a chance to avoid a criminal conviction altogether. Let's review these options below.
Under a continuance for dismissal (CFD), the prosecutor agrees to drop the charges if the defendant successfully completes agreed-upon terms. These terms might include remaining crime-free, paying a program fee, and attending an educational program. A CFD can be a good option because it generally doesn’t involve entering a plea or conviction. Upon successful completion, the defendant might have a record of charges but not a conviction. While this option has its advantages, the decision to offer a CFD stands with the prosecutor (it's not guaranteed) and requires the defendant to give up certain rights, like the right to a trial, to confront and question witnesses, and to contest the evidence.
Petty misdemeanors are fine-only offenses with no possibility of jail time. Typically, these cases don’t end up in front of a judge but rather are resolved by the defendant paying the applicable fine and surcharges (called the Statewide Payables List). And, depending on where you receive a petty misdemeanor citation, the local prosecutors’ office might offer a CFD as a way to keep the ticket off your record.
A prosecutor may also offer CFD for a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor, allowing an offender to avoid jail time and a conviction if successful.
If the offender goes to court, the judge can order one or more of the following sentencing options:
Probation refers to a suspended sentence. Instead of sending the defendant to jail (or instead of imposing a longer jail time), the judge orders the defendant to comply with certain terms, such as remaining crime-free, abstaining from substances, or attending counseling. The judge can order a probation term for up to a year for misdemeanors and two years for gross misdemeanors. Upon successfully completing the terms, the defendant's sentence is complete. A violation, however, can result in jail time.
A first-time misdemeanor offender could spend little to no time behind bars if successful on probation. A person convicted of a gross misdemeanor might see at least a few days of jail time and maybe more. Ultimately, the judge makes the call within the parameters set by law.
(Minn. Stat. §§ 609.125, 609.135 (2020).)
Minnesota law provides enhanced felony penalties for certain offenses where the offender has prior misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor convictions. Many of these enhanced penalties apply to repeat domestic violence-related offenses, such as domestic assault, violation of a restraining order, and harassment crimes. For instance, an offender charged with a third misdemeanor assault against the same victim faces a five-year felony penalty. As another example, Minnesota incrementally increases the penalty for repeat impaired driving offenses (called DWIs). A person convicted of a fourth DWI in ten years faces a seven-year felony penalty. (Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.24, 609.224, 609.748, 609.749 (2020).)
A person convicted of a petty misdemeanor, misdemeanor, or gross misdemeanor can apply to have their criminal record expunged (or sealed) in Minnesota. The person must remain crime-free for at least:
Certain sex offense convictions cannot be expunged. More information on expungement petitions is available on the state's judicial branch website. (Minn. Stat. § 609A.02 (2020).)
Prosecutors face time limits—called statutes of limitations—for filing criminal charges. Minnesota requires prosecutors to file misdemeanor charges within three years of the offense. If an offender participates in a diversion program, time spent in the program doesn’t count against the three-year time limit. Learn more about how criminal statutes of limitations work in this article. (Minn. Stat. § 628.26 (2020).)
While a misdemeanor carries less serious penalties than a felony, a misdemeanor conviction can still have serious, negative consequences. For instance, any time in jail could potentially lead to the loss of your job or even your housing (even if you're not convicted). Having a misdemeanor conviction can make it difficult to find a job, obtain housing, apply for loans, or qualify for a professional license. If you’re facing any criminal charges, contact a criminal defense attorney who can protect your rights throughout the proceedings and help you obtain a favorable outcome. Local attorneys know the system, prosecutors, and judges well, which can be helpful in your defense.