A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that is less serious than a felony and more serious than an infraction. Misdemeanors are generally punishable by a fine and incarceration in a local county jail, unlike infractions which impose no jail time. Many jurisdictions separate misdemeanors into three classes: high or gross misdemeanors, ordinary misdemeanors, and petty misdemeanors. Petty misdemeanors usually contemplate a jail sentence of less than six months and a fine of $500 or less.
The punishment prescribed for gross misdemeanors is greater than that prescribed for ordinary misdemeanors and less than that prescribed for felonies, which customarily impose state prison. Some states, like Minnesota in its state misdemeanor laws, even define a gross misdemeanor as "any crime that is not a felony or a misdemeanor."
Below, you will find more information about the definition of a misdemeanor, judge's discretion in sentencing, and more.
Flexible Treatment of Misdemeanors
Legislatures sometimes use such broad definitions to provide prosecutors and judges with flexibility in charging and sentencing for criminal conduct that calls for a punishment combining a fine normally assessed for a misdemeanor and an incarceration period normally given for a felony. Other states, like California under its felony sentencing realignment law, impose months of county jail rather than multi-year prison sentences for certain designated nonviolent felonies.
Other states give their prosecutors discretion to charge some crimes as "wobblers," meaning the district attorney or the judge can choose to pursue a single criminal matter as a misdemeanor or as a felony, with all the usual consequences attached to either one. Once the D.A. or the judge chooses to treat a crime as a misdemeanor or a felony, the appropriate rights and consequences then attach to the charge and the court will then follow either the misdemeanor or the felony trial and sentencing procedures for the charge.
Federal Treatment of Misdemeanors
In contrast, federal law on misdemeanors follows the strict federal sentencing guidelines. The federal guidelines are applied rigidly pursuant to the federal sentencing guidelines manual's sentencing chart. The chart incorporates fixed values for severity of offense, defendant's criminal history, and other aggravating factors. The federal sentencing chart also applies fixed adjustments and departures for established mitigating factors like law-enforcement cooperation and early acceptance of responsibility.
Federal Class A misdemeanors are those crimes punishable by 6 months to a year of jail. Federal Class B misdemeanors impose 30 days to 6 months jail. Class C misdemeanors impose 5 to 30 days jail. Crimes punishable by fewer than 5 days jail are federal infractions.
Consequences of Misdemeanors
It's important to note that misdemeanors, unlike infractions, are often considered "crimes of moral turpitude," as they threaten jail rather than mere fines. This distinction gives a convicted misdemeanant significantly reduced chances for a scholarship or a good job.
Nowadays, even a dismissed or uncharged arrest for a misdemeanor can destroy a person's future job prospects. For this reason, it's often best for someone charged with a misdemeanor to voluntarily return to the same court and ask for a "certified finding of factual innocence" to show to future employers.
Facing Misdemeanor Charges? Speak With a Lawyer
Knowing the consequences of a misdemeanor conviction and the best defenses to use in court is the job of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Some misdemeanor charges may even result in jail time, in addition to fines and other burdens, so it's important to have the right advocate on your side. Get started today and talk to a criminal defense attorney, who can lay out your options and give you peace of mind.