According to the United States federal criminal code, crimes are distinguished into two broad categories, misdemeanors and felonies. Differentiating between misdemeanors and felonies is not as cut and dry as one would expect. There are lots of gray areas in between, and it takes legal knowledge to know that a crime termed as a misdemeanor may quickly escalate into a felony upon scrutiny.
What’s the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony?
The line between misdemeanor and felony can be somewhat blurry. Notwithstanding, there’s a generally accepted definition for a misdemeanor and a felony. A misdemeanor is any crime committed for which a person spends a maximum of 12 months in jail, while a felony is any crime committed for which a person spends more than 12 months in prison.
The federal law categorizes misdemeanors and felonies into several classes. These categories largely depend on the severity of the crime and the state’s laws concerning the crime committed. Let’s take a closer look at these classifications.
Classes of Misdemeanor
To better understand the classes of misdemeanors, it’s best to study each state’s governing laws and their penal codes. Misdemeanors are mostly in three categories: Class A, which is also known as Class 1, Class B or Class 2, and Class C or Class 3. Class A represents crimes of the highest severity and punishments, while Class C misdemeanors are not as grievous as Class B’s and do not attract many severe penalties.
There are also times when a misdemeanor can be termed “unclassified.” Unclassified misdemeanors are called Class D or Class 4. When a person commits a crime that falls within Class D, the extent of that person’s sentence is left to the prerogative of a judge.
Legal Penalties by Misdemeanor Class
As stated earlier, the corresponding punishment for a crime is not fixed and varies from state to state. Some states do not sentence Class D offenders to jail, while some do. Again, most states may punish a person who repeatedly commits a Class D misdemeanor with stiffer penalties, while other states may only issue the exact corresponding punishment. It all boils down to the state’s laws and the judge presiding over the court case.
Misdemeanors may attract different sentences and fines depending on what class they fall into. Jail time may include anything from four weeks to twelve months, while fines could be from 500 dollars to 5,000 dollars. To have a full and robust understanding of these crimes, it’s better to take a look at some of the most common misdemeanors that people commit.
Examples of Common Misdemeanors
Assault is a crime that involves threatening or causing harm or bodily injury to a person. An assault that involves verbal threats, with no grievous physical harm done, only classifies as a misdemeanor and can attract a jail sentence of six months to a year. Pushing a person during a tensed argument and threatening to slap or punch a person with a raised fist are examples of misdemeanor assault.
An assault becomes a felony when a person does one of the following things:
- Threatens with or uses an object on another person
- Strikes a person, causing severe damage to their health
- Threatens someone with a gun or shoots at someone with the intent to kill
- Commits a simple assault with the motive to perpetuate a more dangerous crime, such as arson or rape
An assault that causes actual bodily injury, resulting from the use of a weapon, would be considered a felony. Felony assault comes with anywhere from one year to 25 years in prison.
Disturbing the Peace
Another common misdemeanor known as disturbing the peace involves crimes such as bullying, fighting in public, blaring music, and instigating an unsanctioned rally. Also known as ‘breach of peace,’ these sorts of charges do not carry heavy weight except in rare situations. Worse cases may see offenders serving a maximum penalty that demands they spend one year in jail.
The conditions surrounding the possession of drugs dictate whether the offense classifies a misdemeanor or felony. Here, the quantity of the drugs found on a person determines the criminal charge. Drug possession for personal use is a misdemeanor and will incur Class C or D misdemeanor penalties.
However, when a person possesses drugs in large quantities, perhaps with the intent to peddle, the law identifies it as a felony and will punish the person with a jail term spanning between one to 25 years. Many states have different laws concerning the possession of drugs. California laws are very stringent, and a person may go to jail for a year or more for carrying only a small amount of drugs.
When it comes to theft, lots of factors determine the outcome of a sentence. However, the main factor considered when classifying a theft is the value of the stolen property. The law divides theft into two categories, petty theft and grand theft.
Difference Between Grand Theft and Petty Theft
Petty theft occurs when a person steals a property whose worth is no more than 500 dollars. Grand theft, also known as larceny, involves the theft of property worth over 1,000 dollars. The law considers grand theft as a felony, and offenders will serve a jail term that exceeds a year.
Indecent exposure occurs when a person exposes their private parts in public, causing undue attention or alarming others. The law may classify indecent exposure as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on whether a child was present when the offender displayed their genitals. If a child was present, the person becomes a sexual offender and has committed an act of felony. When assessing a case of indecent exposure, the question of a child’s age varies from state to state.
A traffic violation occurs when a person contravenes driving rules and regulations or displays inappropriate conduct while driving.
Most traffic violations do not count as a felony but as misdemeanors. However, a person who repeatedly breaks traffic regulations will be termed a felon and receive harsher punishments. Some minor traffic violations counted as misdemeanors are:
- Excessive speeding
- Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- Driving with an expired license or with no license at all
Misdemeanor: Crimes, Classes, and Penalties
Let’s take a brief look at the various classes of misdemeanors, crimes within these classes, and their respective fines and penalties.
Class A or Class 1 Misdemeanor
Fine: 5,000 dollars or less
Penalty: Up to 12 months
Examples of Class A Misdemeanors
- An assault that results in bodily injury
- Trying to resist arrest
- Breaking and entering
- Restraining order violations
- Possession of drugs or controlled substances
Class B or Class 2 Misdemeanor
Fine: Up to 2,000 dollars
Penalty: Six to nine months
Examples of Class B Misdemeanors
- Trespassing on a property
- Mischievous criminal intent
- Less severe types of assaults
- Less severe types of terrorism threats
Class C or Class 3 Misdemeanor
Fine: Up to 1,000 dollars
Penalty: Three months
Examples of Class C Misdemeanors
- Mischievous criminal intent
- Child abandonment
- False report of a missing person
- Disturbing the peace
- Lesser types of assaults
- Traffic violations
- Destruction and damage to property
Class D or Class 4 Misdemeanor
Fine: 500 dollars
Penalty: Five to thirty days
Examples of Class D Misdemeanors
Class D crimes are subject to state laws and therefore, may not be precisely defined but include minor traffic violations and infractions.
Types of Felonies
A felony is a grave and serious crime. Felonies attract severe and stricter punishments that include longer jail terms and heavier fines. As with misdemeanor, the definition of felony differs from state to state. However, the federal government defines a felony as any crime that attracts a jail term of more than 12 months. Most US states classify a felony in regards to the length of a person’s sentence or the prison location where they serve their sentence.
Generally, in the US, any sentence that exceeds a year and warrants that a person serves in a state or federal prison becomes a felony. Just like misdemeanors, there are several classes of felonies, and the amount of prison time is the ultimate determinant in identifying the type of felony.
Since felonies involve stricter punishments, authorities usually carry out thorough investigations and detailed court hearings before pronouncing judgment. There are mainly two types of felony:
Violent and Non-Violent Felonies
Before sentencing a person who committed a felonious act, the court will first consider if the offender used violence in perpetuating the crime. Armed with information from investigations and the offender’s criminal history, a judge then determines the weight of a sentence.
It involves any criminal act that includes threats or damage to a person. However, some states may also consider the damage to property as a violent felony. Certain times, incidents that do not entail violence may be classified as a felony if authorities have a reasonable cause to believe that there is intent to commit violence.
A good example is the case of a person carrying a weapon and happens to be within the vicinity where a riot is taking place. In a bid to restore sanity, the community authorities arrest him alongside some offenders on the scene and take him into custody only to discover he has a weapon on him. Given the circumstances surrounding his arrest, such a person may be charged with a felony.
The law classifies crimes that don’t involve damage or destruction as non-violent crimes. However, if the scale of such crimes puts society at risk, it qualifies as a felony. Such crimes may include money laundering, grand larceny, fraud, etc.
Classes of Felonies
Some states divide felonies into classes A to E while others categorize them from first to fourth degrees. At times, if a person commits a crime in a country that poses a serious threat on a national level, apart from the state penalty, the federal government will also, separately, punish that offender for committing a federal felony.
Legal Penalties by Felony Class
Felonies may attract different sentences and fines depending on what class they fall into. Jail time may include anything from six months to life imprisonment, while fines could be from 5,000 dollars to 20,000 dollars. In a bid to have a full and robust understanding of these crimes, it’s better to take a look at some of the most common felonies that people commit.
Of all felonious acts, the ones with the severest and strictest penalties are murder, kidnapping, arson, and rape. These crimes fit into the category of Class A or first-degree felony, and we’ll look at them briefly.
Example of Common Felonies
Murder is the act of taking a person’s life without cause or justification. The penalty for murder depends on the circumstances which led to the death of the victim. Also, many states in the US have varying laws that determine the degree of an offender’s criminal charge. For example, in most states, a person who kills another in the heat of an argument receives a second-degree felony charge known as voluntary manslaughter. However, a person who commits premeditated murder receives a first-degree felony charge.
The difference between the two is that a person who commits murder during a heated argument does so impulsively without an initial thought to kill. In contrast, a person who commits premeditated murder carefully thinks it through before perpetuating the act and therefore deserves a much harsher and stricter penalty. Involuntary manslaughter is a type of felony which occurs when an offender kills a person due to negligence or recklessness.
Also known as sexual assault, criminal sexual conduct, or sexual battery, rape involves any form of oral, vaginal, or anal penetration of a person against their will. Rape is a felonious act, and people who commit rape are termed sexual offenders and receive either a first or second-degree felony penalty. The law considers sex with a child or teen as rape, even if the child or teen gives consent before the act.
Kidnapping, also known as abduction, is the forceful detention or confinement of a person illegally for ransom or prize. The occurrence of kidnapping is widespread in the US, especially with prominent people and children as victims. Abducting a person in the US is a criminal act that may earn the kidnapper life imprisonment.
The willful and deliberate act of setting fire to a property is called arson. Arson also occurs when a person sets fire to a forest or vehicle with the intent to damage and destroy. A person who commits arson is an arsonist and will be charged with felony. The degree of the felony depends on the extent of damage to property and human life.
Is Driving Under the Influence Considered a Felony?
When a person drives under the influence of alcohol or an intoxicating substance, they will incur criminal charges. If a person drives a vehicle while having a blood alcohol content of over .08, they’ll face a DUI charge. The offender’s previous arrest or offenses determines whether the traffic violation will attract a misdemeanor or felony penalty. First-time offenders face a simple misdemeanor penalty, while people with repeated DUI records may receive a felony charge. In addition, if the traffic violation causes damage to another person’s property or physical harm, a judge will punish the offender for committing an act of felony. Additional punishment may demand that the wrongdoer forfeits their driver’s license and pay some amount of fine.
Felonies: Crimes, Classes, and Penalties
Let’s take a brief look at the various classes of felonies, crimes within these classes, and their respective fines and penalties.
Class A or First-Degree Felony
Fine: 20,000 dollars and above
General penalty: Three to eleven years
Federal penalty: Life imprisonment or death
Examples of First Degree-Felonies
Class B or Second-Degree Felony
Fine: 15,000 dollars to 20,000 dollars
General penalty: Two to eight years
Federal penalty: 25 years upwards
Examples of Second-Degree Felonies
- Child molestation
- Aggravated assault
- Felony assault
- Possession of a controlled substance
Class C or Third-Degree Felony
Fine: 10,000 dollars to 15,000 dollars
General penalty: Nine months to five years
Federal penalty: 11 to 25 years
Examples of Third-Degree Felonies
- Driving under the influence
- A lesser degree of arson
- A lesser degree of fraud
- Assault and battery
Class D or Fourth-Degree Felony
Fine: 5,000 dollars to 10,000
General penalty: Six to 18 months
Federal penalty: Five to 10 years
Examples of Fourth-Degree Felonies
- Resisting arrest
- Involuntary manslaughter
What Are the Limitations that Felons Face?
The consequences of being a felon can seriously affect a person’s life choices and decisions. Although having been convicted of a felony is not the end of the road, a felon still has to deal with the inevitable ramifications of having a criminal record.
Some common restrictions that felons face are:
The Right to Vote
Felons forfeit the right to vote during an election and the right to contest or hold a public office. In some states, a felon can vote after fulfilling certain conditions.
Permission to Possess Firearms
An individual convicted of a felony cannot bear arms. The law will revoke any firearm permit or certificate that the person possesses. Also, felons must surrender firearms in their possessions to a person legally permitted to bear arms.
Since the federal law in the US does not prevent an employer from accessing potential employees’ records, many employers become reluctant to employ an applicant with a criminal history. Although the law prohibits felons’ discrimination based on their past criminal records, convicted felons still suffer prejudice and bias in employers and recruiters’ hands. In Florida, the government encourages employers to accept job applications from ex-convicts through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit initiative (WOTC). With the WOTC, companies that hire an ex-convict who just recently left prison receive a tax break.
A convict with a criminal history of substance possession or peddling who may desire to study in a university or college is not eligible for student loans or financial aids. If felons wish to access grants, loans, or work assistance, they can complete a drug rehabilitation program.