Types of criminal charges
In the United States federal and state laws put criminal charges into three different categories, based on the seriousness of the crime. Felony charges are the most serious, followed by misdemeanor charges. Infractions are the least serious.
What is a felony?
A felony is the most serious type of criminal charge. It involves serious harm, or the threat of serious harm, to another person.
This harm is often physical, including:
Crimes involving significant financial losses can also be felonies:
If you help someone plan, commit, or get away after a felony crime you can also be convicted of a felony.
Misdemeanors can sometimes become felonies. For example, you may face felony charges if you already have 2 misdemeanor convictions for the same crime or somebody got hurt while you were committing a misdemeanor.
Consequences of a felony conviction
Felonies carry potential prison sentences of at least a year and up to life, depending on the severity of your crime. You may also face large fines.
The federal government and many states subdivide felonies by severity. Potential punishments increase by severity. For example, under federal law a Class A felony is the worst, with a maximum penalty of life in prison or death. The lowest level, Class E, carries potential prison time from 1 to 5 years. States have their own systems.
Because the possible punishments are so high, you typically have the right to a jury trial and a court-appointed lawyer if you can’t afford to hire one yourself.
You may also lose certain civil rights after a felony conviction:
- Owning/carrying a gun
- Serving on a jury
- Getting a job in certain fields
- Traveling abroad
In some states your rights may be reinstated when you’ve completed your sentence. In others you have to apply to get them back, with no guarantee your request will be granted.
What is a misdemeanor?
A misdemeanor is a crime that’s not serious enough to be considered a felony.
Often there is a fine line between misdemeanor and felony charges. For example, drug possession can be a felony if you are carrying a large amount of drugs. Likewise, your DUI can be elevated to a felony if you hurt or killed somebody.
Consequences of a misdemeanor conviction
In most cases, the potential jail sentence for a misdemeanor is less than one year. Other punishments can include fines, restitution, and or community service.
In some states you can complete a diversion or first-offender program to avoid a conviction on your record. Requirements of these programs may include paying restitution and undergoing counseling.
Like felonies, there can be different categories of misdemeanor. Under federal law, a Class A misdemeanor is most severe and carries jail time of 6 months to 1 year. Class C is the least severe, with jail time of 5 to 30 days. States may have their own categories.
A misdemeanor conviction can also affect your life long after you’ve completed your sentence. Consequences vary by state but can include difficulty getting certain jobs, professional licenses, and even some public benefits.
What is an infraction
Infractions, sometimes called violations, are minor incidents, usually involving breaking local laws. Examples include:
- Running a stop sign
- Parking violations
- Disturbing the peace
Much like misdemeanors, infractions can sometimes be elevated to a more serious charge. For example, you may be charged with reckless driving (a misdemeanor) for speeding more than 20 mph over the speed limit.
Consequences of conviction for an infraction
In most cases the punishment for an infraction is simply a fine. Jail time is rare and only a few days. Under federal law, some infractions are punishable with up to 5 days in jail.
You typically have the option of paying your fine without going to court, unless you want to fight the ticket. If you do choose to fight, you don’t generally have the right to either a jury trial or an attorney. You can hire a lawyer on your own if you want to.
For traffic infractions you may also have points added to your driving record. If you get too many points in too short a time, you can lose your license. Your insurance premiums may also increase.
In most cases you can handle simple infractions on your own. But misdemeanor and felony charges can be more complicated. It’s usually a good idea to talk with a criminal defense lawyer to protect your rights.