Felonies, Misdemeanors, and Infractions: Classifying Crimes

Learn about crime classifications and punishments.

By , UCLA Law School Professor

In every state, crimes are put into distinct categories. The categories are usually "felony," "misdemeanor," and "infraction." State legislators decide how a crime will be classified, with the main focus being the seriousness of the offense.

This article looks at the differences among these crime classifications, moving from least serious (infractions) to most (felonies).

What Is an Infraction?

Infractions (sometimes called violations) are petty offenses that are typically punishable by fines, but not jail time. The law will set a maximum fine and, sometimes, a minimum fine.

Because infractions cannot result in a jail sentence or even probation, defendants charged with infractions don't have a right to a jury trial or an attorney. A defendant facing charges for an infraction can hire an attorney, but the government doesn't have a constitutional duty to appoint one. Often, prosecutors don't appear on behalf of the government in cases involving infractions. Traffic offenses are the most common form of infraction. (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.

What Is a Misdemeanor?

Misdemeanors are criminal offenses that carry up to a year in jail in most states. Some states have changed the one-year maximum sentence to 364 days to avoid triggering deportation consequences. Punishment for misdemeanors can also include payment of a fine, probation, community service, and restitution.

Some states subdivide misdemeanors by class or degree or define more serious misdemeanors as "gross misdemeanors" or "aggravated misdemeanors." These classifications determine the severity of punishment.

Defendants charged with misdemeanors are often entitled to a jury trial and legal representation. If the defendant can't afford an attorney, the court must appoint one at government expense.

Misdemeanor example. Dave is convicted of simple assault. The offense carries a maximum fine of $1,000 and a maximum jail time of six months. It's a misdemeanor.

What Is a Felony?

Felonies are the most serious type of criminal offense and carry possible sentences anywhere from a year to life in prison. Some states have capital felonies with the death penalty. The punishment for a felony can also include fines, probation, community service, and restitution. If sent to prison, a defendant might be supervised after release or on parole.

Felonies often involve serious physical harm (or threat of harm) to victims, but they also include offenses like white-collar crimes and fraud schemes. The law might also elevate a misdemeanor offense to a felony for repeat offenders. As with misdemeanors, states may also subdivide felonies by class or degree.

Defendants charged with felonies are entitled to a jury trial and legal representation. If the defendant can't afford an attorney, the court must appoint one at government expense.

Felony example 1. Randy is convicted of felony assault with a deadly weapon even though the bottle that he threw at another patron in a tavern missed its intended target. 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 had two prior shoplifting convictions before being arrested for yet another shoplifting offense. State law allows prosecutors to charge shoplifting as a felony if the merchandise was worth a certain amount and the defendant has two or more prior shoplifting convictions. The prosecutor charges Leora with felony shoplifting.

What Is a Wobbler?

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 makes the conviction a misdemeanor.

Get Help From a Lawyer

Depending on the circumstances, you may not need a lawyer for something like a traffic-ticket case. But, for the overwhelming majority of criminal cases, using an attorney is the way to go. Beyond the sentence the judge imposes, a criminal conviction can carry long-lasting consequences. If your lawyer can't avoid a conviction, they might be able to get you a better result than you would have otherwise. An experienced lawyer will protect your rights and fully explain the applicable law, your options, and the potential outcomes.

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