Infraction, Misdemeanor or Felony: What is the Difference?
Criminal charges and wrongs are typically classified as infractions, misdemeanors or felonies depending on the severity of the wrong. The more serious the charges, the more serious the punishment usually is as well.
Infractions are violations of law or ordinances that are typically pretty minor, including traffic infractions. An infraction is less serious than a misdemeanor and may not technically be considered a crime, depending on the circumstances. A person who commits an infraction will usually get a ticket or citation - not jail time or other heftier punishments. Many times, an experienced lawyer can help negotiate a reduction of misdemeanor charges to the level of an infraction for first-time offenders in an effort to avoid a criminal record.
Misdemeanors are more serious than infractions, but less serious than felonies. Misdemeanors typically result in a heavier fine than what someone would pay if they committed an infraction; or if sentenced to jail, for a term that is less than a year. If a jail sentence is imposed, it is served at a local, city or county jail rather than a state or federal prison (penitentiary). A person convicted of a misdemeanor usually does not lose the right to vote, serve on juries, practice in a licensed profession or serve in the military. Most importantly, misdemeanors are not counted as "strikes" in states that have adopted three strikes laws.
Felonies are the most serious types of crimes, and each state has different punishments for these offenses. A standard definition of a felony is any crime punishable by more than one year in prison. Unlike misdemeanors, defendants convicted of felonies serve their sentences in a state or federal prison rather than a local, city or county jail. Additional criminal procedures apply with felonies, and the right to a court-appointed lawyer if the defendant can’t afford one is one of the rights guaranteed in felony cases.
In some jurisdictions, felonies can only be charged upon a grand jury indictment. In the case of a felony charge, not only are the procedural laws different than they are for misdemeanors, but the substantive laws can also be affected. For example, under some statutes an accidental death would be considered a murder if it occurs in the commission of a felony--like armed robbery or kidnapping. However, if it occurs in the commission of a lesser crime like a DUI, it is only manslaughter.
A wobbler is a crime that could be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor. Even if a wobbler begins as a felony, it may be reduced to a misdemeanor at sentencing, or the completion of successful probation.
If you are facing misdemeanor or felony charges, it is in your best interest to contact a criminal defense lawyer right away. An attorney may be able to negotiate a plea bargain wherein the charges are reduced or successfully represent you and get the charges dropped.
The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.
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State Criminal Defense Articles
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- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota