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Misdemeanor vs Felony Criminal Charges

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "Misdemeanor vs Felony Criminal Charges," in The Business Professor, updated January 5, 2015, last accessed March 29, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/misdemeanor-vs-felony-criminal-charges/.
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Misdemeanor and Felony
This video explains what is a misdemeanor and a felony.

Next Article: Process for Bringing Criminal Charges


What are the classifications of criminal conduct – Misdemeanor and Felony?

Criminal conduct is generally classified by the level of severity and the potential punishment from breaking the law. The two primary classifications of crimes are as follows:

  • Misdemeanor – A misdemeanor is a crime of lesser significance that is punishable by a fine or a joint sentence of less than one year.
  • Felonies – Felonies are more serious crimes that are punishable by fine or imprisonment in a penitentiary for a period of one year or more.

Historically, the common law identified “treason” as a class of serious offense that was separate from a felony. Also, today, many jurisdictions identify a less severe form of criminal act, known as an “infraction”. The infraction is generally a minor violation of an ordinance or regulation.

Discussion: Do you believe that laws are always classified appropriately? Do you believe that criminal conduct is generally classified too leniently or too harshly? Do you believe that the mis-classification of crimes has a negative impact on society?

Discussion Input

  • With so many laws on the books, it would be impossible for everyone to agree with all of their classifications. For some people, the context under which a crime occurs may be as important as the crime itself. Under that view, the same criminal conduct with the same result should be classified differently depending on the actor’s motive or the surrounding circumstances. For example, theft of a someone’s wallet for personal enrichment should be classified more harshly than theft of food by someone who is hungry, even if the value or amount items taken is the same. Similarly, some believe that criminal conduct that doesn’t harm anyone should always be classified more leniently than conduct that results in harm to others. Under this view, victimless crimes, such as drug possession resulting from personal use and addiction, should be classified and punished leniently or not at all. In these examples, punishing the hungry person or the drug addict rather than providing them with opportunities to be able to feed themselves or get clean (such as access to job training, drug treatment, food stamps, or other social services) has a negative impact on society since the underlying reason for the crime continues to exist and thus it is likely that they will reoffend. Additionally, being convicted of more serious charges, such as a felony or even some misdemeanors, may have repercussions that follow a person for the rest of their life that lesser offenses, such as an infraction, do not carry, including being denied employment or housing opportunities due to their conviction history. Others believe that laws should be enforced consistently across the board, without consideration of movies or circumstances, in order to be fair. They argue that laws serve a deterrent and punitive purpose and to classify and punish the same offenses differently would be unjust.

Practice Question: Clark is a college student at City College. He is at a house party drinking alcohol when the police arrive to break up the party. Clark is cited for underage drinking. Angry at the occurrence, Clark gets into an argument with a police officer and punches him. Clark is arrested and taken to jail. What is the likely classification of each of Clark’s criminal acts? Why?

Proposed Answer

    • Though both of Clark’s actions are classified as criminal offenses, he is much more likely to be subject to serious charges for the assault of the police officer who cited him for underage drinking than for the underage drinking itself. Since underage drinking is typically considered a lesser offense (especially if Clark was a first-time offender), it is likely to be classified as a simple infraction (often called a summary offense). Had Clark accepted the citation and gone home, his story would have likely ended there with his being required to pay a fine or perhaps perform community service or attend alcohol education classes.  However, the law and the courts take physical violence against anyone, and especially against law enforcement officers, more seriously and thus Clark’s punching of the police officer will be classified as a more serious offense, a misdemeanor or felony depending on the jurisdiction. Rather than going home to sleep it off, Clark will likely spend the night in jail being processed and will have to make several court appearances to resolve his case. In addition to the cost of an attorney (if he doesn’t quality for a public defender) and court costs, he will likely have to pay additional fines, possibly serve more jail time, and/or attend anger management classes – all in addition to what he would already be required to do for his underage drinking citation.

Academic Research

Natapoff, Alexandra, Misdemeanors (February 24, 2012). 85 Southern California Law Review 101 (2012); Loyola-LA Legal Studies Paper No. 2012-08. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2010826

Barkai, John, Accuracy Inquiries for All Felony and Misdemeanor Pleas But Innocent Defendants? (1977). University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 126, pp. 88-146, 1977. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1435109

King, Nancy J. and Heise, Michael, Misdemeanor Appeals (February 15, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3351217 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3351217

Hashimoto, Erica J., The Price of Misdemeanor Representation (November 1, 2007). UGA Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-010; William and Mary Law Review, Vol.49, No. 2, 2007. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=988358

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