Are you a legal professional? Visit our professional site

What's the Difference Between a Misdemeanor vs. Felony?

Misdemeanor vs felony in the court system

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

A misdemeanor is a less serious crime than a felony. Felonies are the most serious crimes you can commit and have long jail or prison sentences, fines, or permanent loss of freedoms. Misdemeanors usually involve jail time, smaller fines, and temporary punishments. For example, you can be slightly over the limit during a DUI stop and get a misdemeanor, but if you have children in the car or are severely over the blood alcohol limit you can face a felony charge.

Types or Categories of Crimes

Most criminal systems for states across the United States divide their crimes into several different categories depending on the seriousness of the crime. The major categories are: infractions; misdemeanors; and felonies. However, within these categories there may be different levels or classes.

The major categories are almost always determined by the amount of jail time that is possible. It's important to know how the court system treats a particular case in order to understand the differences. As a general rule, however, when trying to figure out what the difference is between a misdemeanor and a felony, you can look to the maximum potential jail time for the crime for the answer.

What's an Infraction?

In general, infractions are the least serious type of crime. An infraction is the violation of a rule, ordinance, or a law. In most jurisdictions, there is no jail time associated with an infraction and it will not appear on a criminal record. Typically, payment of a fine will be the only punishment, but federal law classifies an infraction as a crime with a jail sentence of not more than five days. Traffic tickets are examples of an infraction, but other offenses may also be categorized as infractions, such a trespassing, littering, disturbing the peace, and other petty offenses.

Generally, a police officer will see someone doing something wrong, write a ticket and hand it to the person. The person then has to pay a fine. Infractions usually involve little to no time in court (much less jail). However, infractions can turn into a more serious crime if left unaddressed or unpaid.

It is not uncommon that an infraction has different classes (i.e. moving violations, non-moving violations, and other petty offenses). The law typically provides for an increasing range of fines and potential penalties for the different classes within the infraction category.

What's a Misdemeanor?

Misdemeanors are more serious than infractions. Under federal law and in most states, a misdemeanor is a criminal offense that carries a potential jail term of less than one year. Some states define a misdemeanor as a crime that is not a felony or an infraction
Just as infractions are sorted into classes misdemeanors are as well. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the classes are divided up by the maximum imprisonment for the offense.

  • Class A misdemeanor - one year or less, but more than six months;
  • Class B misdemeanor - six months or less, but more than thirty days; or
  • Class C misdemeanor - thirty days or less, but more than five days.

Typically, jail time is served in a local county jail instead of a high security prison. Prosecutors generally have a great degree of flexibility in deciding what crimes to charge, how to punish them, and what kinds of plea bargains to negotiate.

What's a Felony?

A felony is the most serious type of crime. The term felony is not uniform throughout the United States, while the federal government defines felony as a crime with a punishment of more than one year, states are less strict about the definition. Maine and New Jersey do not classify their criminal offenses at all. Some states use the term felony, but do not define it.

However, most states, 43 in all, use and define the term typically by reference to either the length of a sentence or the place of incarceration, sometimes both. For instance, Idaho defines a felony as "a crime punishable by death or by imprisonment in the State prison", while Georgia defines the term as "a crime punishable by death, imprisonment for life, or imprisonment for more than 12 months." Still, other states will define felony by reference to the length of sentence and the place the sentence will be served.

Typically, though a sentence of more than one year that will be served in a state or federal prison will be considered a felony. As with misdemeanors, Federal law breaks down classifications for felonies using sentencing guidelines by the amount of prison time.

  • Class A felony - life imprisonment or the death penalty;
  • Class B felony - twenty-five or more years;
  • Class C felony - less than twenty-five years, but more than ten years;
  • Class D felony - less than ten years, but more than five years; or
  • Class E felony - less than five years, but more than one year.

Since the punishments can be so severe, a criminal procedure must be strictly observed so that the defendants' rights stay protected. Felonies are usually crimes that are viewed severely by society and include crimes such as murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping, or arson. However, felonies can also be punished in a range of ways so that the punishment matches the severity of the crime.

What's the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony in Your Case? Speak with a Lawyer Today

Criminal charges, whether misdemeanor or felony, can result in jail time, fines, job loss, and stress. The assistance of competent legal counsel can help ensure that you best understand your defenses and seek an outcome that minimizes your risk. Get started today and find a criminal defense attorney near you.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified criminal lawyer to make sure your rights are protected.

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution