South Carolina divides crimes into two broad categories: felonies and misdemeanors. Misdemeanors are less serious than felonies and generally carry possible jail time and fines.
In most states, the penalty cut-off between misdemeanors and felonies is anything over a year behind bars. But in South Carolina, misdemeanors can carry sentences of up to three years in jail. This article will outline South Carolina's misdemeanor penalties, sentencing options and alternatives, and expungement eligibility. For information on felonies, check out South Carolina Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences.
South Carolina classifies many of its misdemeanors into one of three categories: Class A, B, or C. Class A misdemeanors are the most serious, while class C misdemeanors are the least serious. Misdemeanors that don't fall under one of these classifications are known as exempt misdemeanors and have possible sentences of a year or less.
Class A misdemeanors carry up to three years of imprisonment. Examples of class A misdemeanors include vandalism (third offense in 10 years), first-degree harassment, joyriding, and sending obscene messages to another without consent.
Class B misdemeanors carry up to two years of imprisonment. Examples of class B misdemeanors include use of counterfeit tickets, instigating or participating in a riot, and submitting a false claim for benefits.
Class C misdemeanors carry up to one year of imprisonment. Examples of class C misdemeanors include hazing, discharging a laser at an aircraft, fraudulent registration or voting, and impersonating a police officer.
For exempt misdemeanors, each crime indicates the maximum penalty, such as 30 days, 90 days, or 6 months' jail time. Examples of exempt misdemeanors include domestic violence in the third-degree, negligently allowing a fire to spread to another's land or property, and unlawfully entering (trespassing) onto another's land.
South Carolina law bumps up certain misdemeanors to felony offenses. A person could face a felony penalty for repeat misdemeanor offenses, offenses involving increasing harm (like assault), and offenses against vulnerable victims (such as children or family members). A misdemeanor property crime, for instance, becomes a class E felony upon a third or subsequent conviction.
Judges may sentence a defendant to incarceration and payment of fines and fees. A judge can impose any amount of time up to the maximum specified in law. A defendant might also spend time in jail for violations of probation or drug (or another alternative) court.
Judges also have several options short of sentencing or sending a defendant to jail, including misdemeanor probation, alternative court programs, community service, and restitution.
Misdemeanor probation. A judge may hold off on sending a defendant to jail and instead place the defendant on probation. To remain in the community, a defendant must abide by probation terms, such as checking in with a supervising officer, attending treatment, maintaining employment, and remaining law abiding.
Alternative court programs. Many courts offer court-supervised drug, mental health, or veteran's treatment courts. These specialty or alternative courts typically require an eligible defendant to admit guilt and comply with a treatment plan outlined by a multi-disciplinary team. This team usually consists of the judge, solicitor, defense counsel, probation, social services, and a treatment specialist. A defendant might be required to seek treatment and make periodic appearances before the judge, meet with a probation supervisor, and complete other requirements.
Community service or restitution. A judge can also require an offender to complete community service or make restitution to (compensate) victims in lieu of or in addition to jail time.
Some solicitors' offices have pretrial intervention or diversion programs aimed at keeping low-level misdemeanor offenses out of criminal court completely. These programs focus on rehabilitating the person through treatment, accountability to victims, and other interventions. These programs, if available, are often limited to first-time offenders who haven't committed violent crimes.
Generally, the solicitor will hold off on filing criminal charges against the person based on an agreement that the person completes certain program requirements. If successful, the solicitor dismisses the charges and the person can ask the court to destroy all related records. A violation, on the other hand, means the solicitor may go forward with the criminal charges.
Certain offenders can have their criminal records expunged or sealed. Expungement is limited in South Carolina but may be an option for defendants who:
A defendant must file an application with the solicitor's office that prosecuted the case. For some offenses, a person can apply for expungement only after a certain amount of time has passed (a wait period) since completion of the sentence.
Even though misdemeanor charges can seem minor, you need to talk to a South Carolina criminal defense lawyer if you are ever charged with a crime. A misdemeanor conviction can mean years behind bars or under probation supervision, as well as thousands of dollars in fines and fees. You'll want to talk to your attorney about how the criminal justice process works in South Carolina, as well as ask questions about the impact of a criminal record. A defense attorney can guide you through the process, defend your rights, and fight for the best outcome.
(S.C. Code §§ 16-1-10, -20, -57, -100, -130; 17-22-60, -100, -150, -910; 24-21-410, -440, -480 (2023).)