The seriousness of a charge depends on whether it's a felony, misdemeanor, or infraction.
Felonies are the most serious kinds of crimes. Generally, a crime is considered a felony when it is punishable by more than a year in a state prison (also called a penitentiary). Examples of felonies are murder, rape, burglary, and the sale of illegal drugs.
Misdemeanors are less serious crimes, and are typically punishable by up to a year in county jail. Common misdemeanors include shoplifting, drunk driving, assault, and possession of an unregistered firearm. Often, an offense that is a misdemeanor the first time a person commits it becomes a felony the second time around.
Infractions are still less serious violations, like those involving traffic laws, which typically subject a person to nothing more than a monetary fine. Defendants charged with infractions usually have no right to a jury trial or a court-appointed lawyer. But repeat offenders, even when the offense is a mere infraction, may face stiffer penalties or charges. (Some states consider certain kinds of infractions like traffic tickets to be civil, rather than criminal, offenses.)
Municipal laws, also called ordinances, are enacted by and effective only in a particular city or county. For example, a city ordinance may forbid overnight parking or prohibit smoking in elevators. Violators of municipal laws are typically fined.
Prosecutors and judges sometimes are authorized by a criminal statute to treat the criminal behavior defined in the statute as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Such crimes are often referred to as "wobblers." For example, under a wobbler statute that allows assault to be charged as a felony or a misdemeanor, the prosecutor usually will decide which charge to bring on the basis of the severity of the injury to the victim and the nature of the defendant's intent and past criminal record. Similarly, after hearing evidence of a crime charged as a felony under such a statute, a judge may decide (on her own or in response to a defense request) to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor.
This article was excerpted from The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman, J.D., and Sara J. Berman, J.D.