What Is a Misdemeanor?

by Team eLocal
Police car with blue lights on the crime scene in traffic urban environment.

Trying to understand real-life legal issues isn't as fun as watching a courtroom drama on television. If you're navigating a criminal case, you may need to learn legal terms — including the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor.

What Is the Definition of a Misdemeanor?

The precise definition varies by jurisdiction, but misdemeanors are usually minor crimes. A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that is less serious than a felony and often carries a sentence of less than one year.

State and Municipal Misdemeanors

States and municipalities define many minor crimes as misdemeanors. Punishment for misdemeanors varies by jurisdiction and may range from a fine to a year or more in county jail. Consequences can also include:

  • Probation
  • Community service
  • Anger management or substance abuse treatment

Many jurisdictions divide misdemeanor crimes into multiple levels, such as Class A and Class B misdemeanors. The punishment imposed depends on many factors, including the class of misdemeanor, facts of the case and the defendant's criminal record.

Definition of a Misdemeanor Under Federal Law

The United States Code defines misdemeanors as crimes punishable by less than 12 months of imprisonment. Although many people associate federal crimes with major criminal activity, many relatively minor offenses are federal misdemeanors.

How Do Misdemeanors Compare to Other Crimes?

A misdemeanor charge is less serious than a felony. Severe crimes that carry hefty fines or long prison sentences are felonies. Examples of felonies include robbery, drug trafficking and murder. However, misdemeanors are more significant than infractions, such as speeding tickets and other traffic violations.

Examples of Misdemeanors

State and local misdemeanors often include offenses such as: 

  • Driving under the influence
  • Shoplifting
  • Harassment
  • Assault without serious injury

Examples of misdemeanors under federal law include:

  • Driving under the influence, possession of marijuana or other common crimes on federal property
  • Making a false claim about lost mail
  • Transporting certain illegal or stolen items across state lines

There are hundreds of misdemeanor crimes under state and federal laws, and a criminal lawyer can offer additional guidance.

Consequences of a Misdemeanor Record

Even misdemeanor convictions can have far-reaching consequences and will go on a person's criminal record. A criminal record can impact employment opportunities, immigration status and sentencing in future cases.

Federal law sometimes treats state misdemeanors as felonies if the potential sentence was a year or more of jail time, regardless of how long the sentence actually was. This can significantly affect immigration and other legal matters. Anyone facing criminal charges should consider speaking with a criminal defense attorney.


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