Misdemeanor Crimes: Classes and Penalties

Most states and the federal criminal code have classified their misdemeanors into classes or levels.

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 (which typically does not involve jail time). Many states classify their misdemeanors by grouping the more severe crimes into class A (or level 1), class B (or level 2), and so on. Some states use other terms for each level, such as “misdemeanor,” and “gross misdemeanor.”

The purpose of grouping misdemeanors into classes or levels is to assign punishments that fit the level of the offense. For example, a state might specify that a class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in the county jail, a fine of up to $5,000, or both. Then, for each misdemeanor crime, the state specifies the class it belongs to. Assault and battery that does not result in significant injury might be a class A misdemeanor, which tells you that the possible punishment would be the terms just noted.

Some states do not classify their misdemeanors—they simply assign a punishment right in the statute that describes or defines the crime. In the example above, for example, such a state would define the crime of simple assault and battery, then give the punishment in the same statute.

Misdemeanor crimes include simple assault, shoplifting, trespassing, disorderly conduct, and other low-level offenses.

States That Classify Misdemeanors by Class or Level

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.

States That Classify Misdemeanors by Unique Terms

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 person offense or petty disorderly person offense), New Mexico (petty misdemeanor or misdemeanor), Rhode Island (misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor), and Washington (gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor).

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.

Prosecutorial Discretion and Overcharging

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 point out to the judge or jury that the offense has been blown out of proportion to what really happened.

Misdemeanor Classes Defined

Follow the links below to get general information on misdemeanor classes A, B, and C.

State-specific Information on Ranked Misdemeanors

For information on the crimes that a particular state has placed within its class, level, or other unique ranking system, consult the state links below.

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