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Criminal Defense: Classification of Crimes

Criminal charges 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.

But why does this matter?

Let’s take a look at each crime classification to find out.

Infractions: Defined

Infractions are the most minor of the crime classifications. This category may also be referred to petty offenses or petty misdemeanors. Examples of infractions may include:

  • Jaywalking
  • Traffic tickets
  • Minor drug possession (in some states only)
  • Noise complaints
  • Seat belt violations

If a police officer is called to your residence for a noise complaint, they might write you a ticket or a citation. While there may be a fine involved, this is generally the extent of it – as long as the fine is paid in full and on time. Ignoring or forgetting to pay a fine for a minor offense could result in increasing fines, as well as additional penalties.

It’s also worth noting that experienced criminal attorneys may argue for misdemeanor charges to be reduced to an infraction. This defense strategy can help their client avoid a criminal record and tends to be used for first-time offenders.

Misdemeanors vs. Felonies

Misdemeanors are more serious than infractions, but less severe than a felony. Misdemeanors usually involve more substantial fines than those associated with infractions, and may even involve up to one year in jail. Many states also have gross misdemeanor classifications which involve greater penalties and potential time in jail.

Felonies, of course, are the most serious type of crime. Within this classification, crimes are further defined by degrees (with first degree being the most serious and third degree being the most minor). Crimes that fall under the felony category may include:

  • Arson
  • Violent crimes (including sexual assault and murder)
  • Burglary
  • Terrorism
  • Kidnapping

The standard definition of a felony is any crime for which the convicted individual can be punished for more than one year. That being said, however, felony punishments are meted out at the state level. Another differentiation from the misdemeanor level is that rather than time in a county jail, felony convictions translate to serving out a sentence in either a state or a federal prison.

Rights in Felony Cases

There are certain rights that are guaranteed to those charged with committing one or more felony crimes. These rights include:

  • The right to have a court-appointed attorney if one cannot be afforded
  • The right to enter a not guilty plea
  • The right to a trial
  • The right to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt

Capital felony offenses – which mean the death penalty is on the table – also stipulate that the 12-person jury must unanimously agree on guilt for a conviction.

Felony Convictions Don’t Go Away

There are certain public rights that are essentially lost for those convicted of a felony. These rights include:

  • The right to own a firearm
  • The right to vote
  • The right to public housing

Because felonies stay on a person’s criminal record, they also may affect your ability to find a job. A criminal defense lawyer may try to negotiate a plea bargain to reduce a felony charge down to a lesser gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor. In many states, repeat offenders are subject to a “three strikes” law, which comes with a mandatory prison sentence.

The Bottom Line

Crime classification matters because the type of crime committed sets the stage for the entire procedure through the criminal justice system. Infractions usually only involve citations and fines. Lawyers may not be involved unless the crime is considered a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or a felony. Regardless, every person accused of committing a crime is guaranteed constitutional protections.

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