In all states and under the federal criminal code, a misdemeanor is a crime punishable by incarceration and, sometimes, a fine. A misdemeanor is less serious than a felony but more so than an infraction. States define felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions by their potential penalties.
Often, the maximum punishment possible for a misdemeanor will be a year in a local jail. (A few states provide misdemeanor penalties as high as two or three years' incarceration.) If the crime carries a potential prison sentence of over a year, the offense becomes a felony. Infractions (sometimes called violations) are usually fine-only offenses with no possibility of incarceration (such as traffic tickets).
Many states divide their misdemeanors into different levels or classifications, such as class A (or level 1) misdemeanors, class B (or level 2) misdemeanors, and so on. Some states use other terms for each level, such as "misdemeanor," "high misdemeanor," or "gross misdemeanor."
The purpose of grouping misdemeanors into classes or levels is to assign punishments that fit the severity of the offense. For example, a state might define a misdemeanor as any crime punishable by up to a year in jail and then further divide misdemeanors into classes or levels. Here, a class C misdemeanor might max out at 90 days' jail time, class B misdemeanors go up to 180 days in jail, and class A misdemeanors carry the potential for a year in jail.
Some states don't classify their misdemeanors—they simply assign a punishment right in the statute that describes or defines the crime. For instance, the statute might provide that a person who commits simple assault is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,500 fine, but the person who commits a domestic assault is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The following states classify their misdemeanor crimes into classes or levels: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Thus, these states have class B or level 2 misdemeanors.
In these states, legislators did not use the terms "class" or "level," but they did group their misdemeanor crimes by severity: Georgia (misdemeanors and misdemeanors of a high and aggravated nature), Hawaii (petty misdemeanor and misdemeanor), Iowa (aggravated, serious, or simple), Minnesota (gross misdemeanor, misdemeanor, or petty misdemeanor), Nevada (gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor), New Jersey (disorderly persons offense or petty disorderly persons offense), New Mexico (petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor), Rhode Island (misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor), and Washington (gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor).
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.
For the most part, prosecutors have the discretion to charge a particular offense as they deem appropriate, and sometimes that involves choosing to file misdemeanor charges instead of felony charges, or vice versa. For example, someone who gets into a fight and injures another person can be charged with assault. The state's law may differentiate misdemeanor assaults from felony assaults based on, among other factors, the extent of the victim's injuries. When the injuries aren't clearly in one or the other category, the prosecutor will choose which level to charge.
Prosecutorial discretion can be abused when prosecutors "overcharge" acts that should be charged at lower levels. Often, overcharging is done to pressure defendants into pleading guilty to a lower-level offense (perhaps the crime that should have been charged in the first place). Overcharging can also backfire when defense counsel points out to the judge or jury that the offense has been blown out of proportion to what really happened.
Follow the links below to get general information on misdemeanor classes A, B, and C.
For information on the crimes that a particular state has placed within its class, level, or other unique ranking systems, consult the state links below.