In Montana, as in most states, a misdemeanor is generally a crime that carries a potential sentence of a year or less in jail. In contrast, a felony in Montana is a more-serious crime that's punishable by more than a year in state prison.
Unlike many states, Montana doesn't group misdemeanors into different classes for purposes of sentencing. Rather, the laws for each crime state the maximum sentence for that offense (and occasionally the minimum sentence), as well as where a sentence of incarceration should be served (jail or prison). The crime is considered a misdemeanor if the maximum sentence is incarceration for one year or less, a fine, or both. (Mont. Code §§ 45-1-201, 45-2-101 (2020).)
Within the limits set by the relevant criminal statutes, it's up to the judge to decide the appropriate sentence in any criminal case. For most misdemeanors, judges may impose fines as penalties, either alone or along with a sentence of incarceration. If the victim suffered a financial loss, the judge must also order the defendant to pay restitution, along with any other penalties. (Mont. Code § 46-18-201 (2020).)
A typical sentence in Montana for lower-level misdemeanors—such as such as hunting wild game over the legal bag limit—is up to six months in jail and/or a fine. For taking deer or elk over the limit, the statutory fine is $300-$1,000. (Mont. Code § 87-6-413 (2020).)
Several common misdemeanors—such as assault and criminal trespass—carry a maximum sentence of up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine. But for many misdemeanors, Montana law requires stiffer penalties when the defendant has one or more previous convictions for the same crime. For instance:
Sometimes, the second or third offense turns a misdemeanor into a felony, with the possibility of a prison sentence. For example:
(Mont. Code §§ 45-5-201, 45-5-220, 45-5-502, 45-6-203, 45-6-301, 45-8-101 (2020).)
Instead of sending you to jail or imposing a fine for a misdemeanor, the judge may impose one of the sentencing alternatives available in Montana, such as:
(Mont. Code § 46-18-201 (2020).)
As in almost all states, prosecutors in Montana must bring charges for most crimes within a certain period of time after the crime was allegedly committed. Known as a criminal statute of limitations, this time limit for most misdemeanors is one year, but there are several exceptions. For instance, the limitations period for fish and wildlife violations is three years; for theft, it's generally five years, or longer if the defendant still has the stolen property. The statute of limitations may also be extended under certain circumstances. (Mont. Code § 45-1-205 (2020).)
Even though a misdemeanor is less serious than a felony, a misdemeanor conviction can still have long-term negative consequences in your life—such as making it hard to get a job or housing. Any time you're facing criminal charges, you should speak to a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A lawyer who is familiar with the local criminal system and cases like yours can determine whether you have grounds to get the charges dismissed, negotiate a favorable plea bargain if that's appropriate, represent you at trial if it comes to that, and protect your rights throughout the proceedings.
Look Out for Legal Changes
The Montana legislature can change its laws at any time. You can find the current version of any statute mentioned in this article by searching the Montana Code. But you should know that court opinions can affect how judges interpret and apply the law, which is another reason to talk to a lawyer if you're worried about actual or potential criminal charges.