What is the difference between a felony crime and a misdemeanor crime?
Crimes are typically divided into categories based on severity, including the harm done, whether there was a victim, and if there were any aggravating circumstances. Crimes are typically involved into three major sections in the US: tickets/fines, misdemeanors and felonies.
Tickets and fines are something nearly everyone has experience with. This goes to crimes that are minor – such as speeding, rolling through a stop sign, or having an expired registration. There is usually no time in court or jail, and usually requires you only to pay a fine, or appear in court to contest the ticket. People get into trouble when they fail to resolve the fine, ignore it and hope it goes away. These turn into warrants of arrest and potential jail time (as well as more fines). Better to pay it off as soon as possible, or work out a repayment plan with the court, if the judge will allow it.
Misdemeanors are the next step up – more than a mere infraction. Usually, they are still fairly minor crimes, with jail time limited up to a year in most cases. Jail is usually served in a local county, rather than involving transit to a high-security prison elsewhere. Misdemeanors are almost always settled out of court, as prosecutors and courts do not like wasting court resources on fairly minor crimes. Many misdemeanors are actually charged as a result of a plea deal. For instance, for first time offenders of a DUI, if they have no other criminal history, agree to certain conditions and pay fines, many times these can be pled down to something like reckless driving, a misdemeanor. Misdemeanors are usually nonviolent crimes like disorderly conduct, petty theft or vandalism, and often drug possession for first-time offenders.
Felonies are the most serious kinds of crimes, carrying the longest amount of jail time and punishment. These crimes are usually violent or have the capacity to cause egregious psychological harm, although they can be egregious in other ways (like tax evasion). The marker is that most felonies carry a requirement of jail time for over a year. These crimes are the serious ones that you think of regularly – murder, rape, kidnapping, arson and the like. Felonies can also be white collar crimes like SEC violations, fraud, or extortion, depending on the severity of the crime. The important thing to remember is that, punishment, like crimes, also are flexible and allow for multiple factors in order for the punishment to fit the crime. Some states have made felonies much more serious, with longer lasting implications than seen elsewhere with ‘three-strikes’ laws. Texas, California and Washington, among others, have created a system where those who have been convicted of a serious or violent felony two or more times will serve a life sentence in the event they are convicted of a third.
Sometimes, crimes are called ‘wobbler’ crimes and can be prosecuted either as a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the prosecutor, or other factors, like whether aggravating factors exist (such as the crime being carried out with the assistance of a deadly weapon). DUI once again comes to mind – it could be treated as a misdemeanor if no one was injured or harmed monetarily by his or her actions. Usually, the state will charge the person with a felony in an effort to improve the state’s bargaining power as they begin the plea bargain process. Sometimes, the plea process can include a condition where they are charged with a misdemeanor and the case will be dismissed unless they commit a probation violation, in which case, they can be charged with a felony and remanded back into court. Prosecutors have great discretion in categorizing and sentencing various crimes, and only a good criminal defense lawyer will be able to help you navigate the fairly unpredictable waters of the state justice system.