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What Is a Misdemeanor?

In the majority of states, a misdemeanor is defined as a type of criminal offense for which a person who is convicted may receive a small criminal fine for, up to twelve months of imprisonment (i.e., one year maximum sentence), or both as punishment.

Misdemeanor charges are usually more serious than receiving a citation or infraction, but are less serious than being charged with a felony offense. However, the definition for misdemeanor charges will change according to the laws of a particular state since each state has its own classification system.

Despite the differences between varying state statutes, the most common characteristic found across all definitions of a misdemeanor is the fact that it is typically only punishable for up to a year in prison.

Some examples of crimes that are generally categorized as misdemeanors include the following:

As is evident from the above list, a broad range of crimes may be classified as misdemeanors. Again, whether or not an offense is labeled a misdemeanor crime will all depend on the laws in a particular jurisdiction and the circumstances of an individual case. 

What is the Difference Between a Felony vs. Misdemeanor?

The primary difference between a felony and a misdemeanor is that felonies tend to be more serious offenses, which often involve an element of violence. As such, the other main difference between the two is the form of punishment that a convicted defendant can receive.

Since felony charges are more severe than misdemeanors, they frequently result in a prison sentence that lasts longer than a year and may also include having to pay a greater amount in criminal fines.

In general, crimes that are classified as felonies usually require proof of a higher mental state of intent (i.e., mens rea) than the level necessary to commit a misdemeanor. Felony crimes also tend to cause greater harm to its victims, which can include injuring an individual, society overall, or more severe property damage.

For example, the felony offense known as “grand theft” typically involves the theft of property with a dollar amount that exceeds $1,000. In contrast, the llesser misdemeanor offense known as “petty theft” applies to the theft of property that is valued at $1,000 or less. Again, these values may vary in accordance with specific state statutes.

Additionally, most misdemeanor offenses are victimless crimes, such as being in contempt of court, receiving certain traffic citations, and committing disorderly conduct. On the other hand, felonies usually result in severe bodily injury or damage, and sometimes even death. Some examples of felonies include first-degree murder, rape, and robbery.

One other final discrepancy between the two is that although both will appear on the defendant's criminal record, misdemeanor charges are relatively easier to have expunged or removed than felony charges.

Are There Different Types of Misdemeanors?

As previously mentioned, most states have a classification system that identifies how to determine whether it falls under a misdemeanor offense and what the resulting sentence should be for committing a particular type of misdemeanor crime. For example, a state may divide misdemeanor crimes into levels, such as Class 1 or A, 2 or B, 3 or C, and so on.

The state may also categorize it by the amount of damage or injury caused by the crime. For instance, Class A misdemeanors are usually reserved for the more serious sorts of crimes that warrant greater punishment, but still fall below those crimes and punishments that would qualify it to be a felony.

In contrast, Class D misdemeanors involve the least serious types of misdemeanor offenses. However, most states stop classifying misdemeanors (i.e., unclassified misdemeanors) at Class C.

As a general example, a misdemeanor assault that results in bodily injury will most likely be classified as a Class A misdemeanor offense. If the injury leads to severe damage or death, then the crime can be elevated from a misdemeanor offense up to a felony charge (e.g., homicide).

Additionally, the misdemeanor assault can also become a felony charge when it involves an aggravating factor, such as if the assault was committed with the use of a deadly weapon, if the defendant was a repeat offender, or if the assault victim was a child or minor.

Is a Petty Offense the Same as a Misdemeanor?

Infractions (or citations) are often described as petty offenses that result in criminal fines, but usually no jail time. As discussed, they are generally considered less serious offenses than both misdemeanor and felony crimes.

Some common examples of infractions include building permit violations, jaywalking, littering, fishing without a license, and minor traffic violations.

It is important to note that not all petty offenses are infractions. Some states use the term “petty offense” to refer to certain types of misdemeanor crimes.

A perfect example of this is the crime of misdemeanor larceny. Misdemeanor larceny is the property of theft that is valued below a specific dollar amount (usually $1,000 or less). Some states define misdemeanor larceny as “petty larceny” or “petty theft”, which can easily be confused or considered as a “petty offense.”

Despite its name, however, “petty larceny” is not actually a petty offense and thus a person convicted of it can be subject to more than an infraction. In fact, being convicted of a petty offense can lead to having a criminal record, paying heavier fines than those for infractions, and possibly serving a jail sentence that could last for up to one year.  

Is Theft Considered a Misdemeanor?

A good example of the difference between felonies and misdemeanors involves the crime of theft. In most instances, a simple theft crime (such as shoplifting) will result in misdemeanor charges. In some of those cases, only a small criminal fine will apply. This is especially true if the crime is one for a very minor theft.

Theft for a large amount of money, however, may result in grand theft charges. Grand theft or grand larceny charges are often prosecuted as felonies and are defined as crimes involving property valued at over $500. As discussed above, classifications (even for felonies) will vary by state. Thus, the amount may be higher or lower depending on the laws of the jurisdiction. 

What are “Unclassified” Misdemeanors?

Generally, most state criminal laws will classify misdemeanors into classes, such as Class A, Class B, or Class 1, Class 2, etc. These are usually based on the seriousness of the crime and the corresponding punishments for each class. Unclassified misdemeanors are those that don't fit neatly into any of the existing categories. 

Some states may actually have a separate category called “Unclassified Misdemeanors”, which usually includes crimes that are too unique or that involve new legal issues, or that are not very serious in nature. Examples of unclassified misdemeanors might include minor gambling crimes, less-serious misdemeanors like littering, and various traffic offenses. Again these will depend on individual state laws.

What is a Gross Misdemeanor?

Gross misdemeanors are criminal offenses that are more serious than regular misdemeanors. These will usually result in more severe penalties than normal. The definition or classification of gross misdemeanors depends on state laws. They typically involve crimes such as drunk driving, “aggravated” assault (more serious assault cases, such as those involving a deadly weapon), and crimes involving repeated behavior (such as stalking).

While gross misdemeanors are more serious in nature, they are still usually considered less serious than felony crimes. Crimes classified as gross misdemeanors in one state might not be considered serious crimes in other states. 

What is the Punishment for a Misdemeanor?

Criminal punishments for misdemeanor crimes can involve a mix of both jail time (in a county jail facility, not a state prison facility), as well as criminal fines. For the jail sentences, they will usually carry a sentence of one year maximum in jail. Criminal fines are typically capped at $1,000, though again this can vary by state. 

Consequences for criminal misdemeanor charges may also depend on the exact type of violation involved. For instance, for a misdemeanor graffiti sentence, the defendant may be required to perform community clean up and/or write a letter of apology to the affected property owner. In contrast, punishments for drunk driving can involve mandatory DUI classes (traffic school) and other measures. These can be added on top of the fines and/or jail sentence.  

Are There Any Defenses to Misdemeanors?

Criminal defenses to misdemeanor crimes can exist and may apply in many situations. The type of defense raised will obviously depend on the type of misdemeanor. Some common defenses to misdemeanors include:

  • Lack of Evidence: All crimes require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution cannot prove the elements of a crime, or if they lack sufficient evidence for proof, it may serve as a defense;
  • Intoxication: It can sometimes be a defense if the defendant was intoxicated at the time of the crime. This is a common defense in cases where it must be shown that the defendant acted intentionally (the argument is that the intoxication affected their ability to act intentionally);
  • Coercion/Duress: If the defendant was forced to commit the crime under threat of harm or injury, it can serve as a defense to some misdemeanors (for instance, if a person is held a knife point and told to assault someone);
  • Self-Defense: Many cases involving bodily injury (such as battery) may involve self-defense. In order to raise this defense, the defendant usually must only use a reasonable or proportionate amount of force, and they can't be the one to initiate the use of force. 

Various other defenses may be raised. These will depend on a whole host of factors, including individual state laws. 

Can I Also be Liable in a Civil Lawsuit for a Misdemeanor Crime?

In many instances, a person facing misdemeanor criminal charges may also face a civil lawsuit for damages by the victim. This is common for cases such as theft where the victim is seeking additional compensation for losses caused by the crime. 

In most cases, if the defendant was found guilty of the crime in criminal court, or if they entered a no contest plea, they will likely be found liable in a civil court of law. This is because the standard of proof is higher in criminal courts than it is in civil courts

Depending on the type of misdemeanor, certain defenses may apply. Some common defenses to misdemeanors include:

  • Involuntary Intoxication: If a person is forced to drink alcohol or take drugs, or does so unknowingly, then it may be a defense to a misdemeanor charge;  
  • Coercion or Duress: If a person was forced to commit a crime due to a threat of harm or injury against them, then it can serve as a defense to some misdemeanors; 
  • Lack of Evidence: If the prosecution cannot prove the elements of a crime, or if they lack sufficient evidence for proof, then it may be a defense to the crime; and
  • Self-Defense: Many cases regarding bodily injury, such as battery, often involve self-defense. In order to raise self-defense, the defendant usually must only use a reasonable or proportional amount of force. In other words, they can't be the one who initiated the use of force.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Misdemeanor Charges?

The definitions for misdemeanor charges can often cause confusion. Since classifications vary by state, the application of misdemeanor laws can sometimes change from case to case. Therefore, if you are facing misdemeanor charges, it may be in your best interest to hire a local criminal defense attorney.

A qualified criminal defense attorney will be able to explain how the misdemeanor statutes in your area may affect your case, can determine whether there are any misdemeanor defenses available for your case, and can guide you through the overall process.

Call our office today at 212-994-7777 or complete the convenient online contact form to set up a consultation.