In every state, crimes are put into distinct categories that usually include felony, misdemeanor, and infraction. Decisions on crime classification are made by state legislators, and the determination usually focuses on the seriousness of the crime and the impact on victims and society. This article looks at the differences among these crime classifications -- from least serious (infractions) to most serious (felony). To learn more about how specific crimes are defined, check out Nolo's Crimes In-Depth section.
Infractions (sometimes called violations) are petty offenses that are punishable by small fines only. Because infractions cannot result in a jail sentence or even probation, defendants charged with infractions do not have a right to a jury trial. Defendants who have been charged with infractions can hire their own attorney, but the government does not have a constitutional duty to appoint an attorney for defendants charged with infractions. Often, prosecutors do not appear on behalf of the government in cases involving infractions. Traffic offenses are the most common form of infraction. (But note that some states consider certain kinds of infractions like traffic tickets to be civil, rather than criminal, offenses.)
Infraction Example. Ginger receives a speeding ticket. After Ginger and the officer who issued the ticket testify, the judge concludes that Ginger was speeding. Ginger's punishment is limited to a fine and the addition of a point to her driving record. (Learn more in Nolo's Q&A How do points against my license affect me?)
Misdemeanors are criminal offenses that are punishable by up to a year in jail. Punishment for misdemeanors can also include payment of a fine, probation, community service, and restitution. Defendants charged with misdemeanors are entitled to a jury trial. Indigent defendants charged with misdemeanors are entitled to legal representation at government expense. Some states subdivide misdemeanors by class or by degree or define more serious misdemeanor offenses as "gross misdemeanors." These classifications determine the severity of punishment.
Misdemeanor Example. Dave is convicted of furnishing cigarettes to a minor. The state defines the offense as a Class C misdemeanor. If state law provides that Class C misdemeanors are punishable by a fine of up to $100, that is the maximum sentence the judge can impose on Dave.
Felonies are the most serious type of criminal offense. Felonies typically involve serious physical harm (or threat of harm) to victims, but felony offenses also include white collar crimes and fraud schemes. Offenses that otherwise are misdemeanors can be elevated to felonies for second-time offenders. Punishment for felonies ranges from imprisonment in prison for one year to life in prison without parole, and felonies like murder may even be punished by imposition of the death penalty. As with misdemeanors, states may also subdivide felonies by class or by degree.
Felony Example 1. Randy is convicted of assault with a deadly weapon even though the bottle that he threw at another patron in a tavern missed its intended target. Randy will probably be convicted of a felony because even though he failed to injure the intended victim, his behavior was intended to (and did) create a risk of serious physical injury.
Felony Example 2. Leora was convicted of shoplifting 15 months before she is charged with another shoplifting offense. State law may allow (but not require) the prosecutor to charge Leora with felony shoplifting.
"Wobblers": Felony or Misdemeanor
A "wobbler" is an offense that may be prosecuted as a felony or as a misdemeanor. An offense that was prosecuted as a felony may also be downgraded to a misdemeanor at the time of sentencing. This occurs when statutes authorize judges to punish offenders as either misdemeanants or felony offenders.
"Wobbler" Example. Randy is convicted of assault with a deadly weapon. State law provides that the offense is punishable by up to one year in jail or up to five years in prison. The judge sentences Randy to four months in jail, three years of probation, and 200 hours of community service. The sentence reduces the conviction to a misdemeanor.
Classifying Crimes: State Law Examples
To get a better idea of how crimes are classified in different states, take a look at these examples of state criminal statutes.
Rhode Island: Criminal offenses punishable by imprisonment for longer than a year or by a fine of more than $1,000 are felonies. Criminal offenses punishable by imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or by a fine of not more than $1,000 (or both) are misdemeanors. Criminal offenses punishable by imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or by a fine of not more than $500 (or both) are petty misdemeanors. Offenses punishable only by a fine of not more than $500 are violations.
Oregon: For sentencing purposes, felonies are classified as Class A, Class B, Class C, and unclassified felonies. Felony offenses not defined as Class A, B, or C felonies are unclassified felonies. When a crime that is punishable as a felony is also punishable by imprisonment for a maximum term of one year or by a fine, the crime shall be classed as a misdemeanor if the court imposes a punishment other than imprisonment.
Learn More and Get Help
For everything you've ever wanted to know about the criminal justice system -- from searches to sentencing -- get The Criminal Law Handbook, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman (Nolo). And, if you need more personal help after an arrest or other run-in with the criminal justice system, use Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to find an experienced criminal law attorney near you.