What is the Difference Between a Misdemeanor and a Felony?

Whether you face criminal charges, have an interest in true crime stories or are in a criminal justice or legal program, you may need to know the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony.

Felony crimes are generally the worst and include things like drug trafficking, murder and assault. Misdemeanor crimes are less serious in nature and include trespassing or drug possession, but misdemeanor crimes may still require some jail time.

There are a few other differences between the two types of crimes as well.

Severity of Crime

One common difference between the two is the overall severity of the crime. Felony crimes often involve violence against another person such as murder or sexual assault. These crimes can also relate to drug trafficking or possession with intent to sell for carrying a larger amount of an illegal substance. Most federal crimes are felonies. Misdemeanor crimes are less harmful in nature and may include robbing an individual’s home, vandalizing public property or carrying a smaller amount of drugs. States have the right to set their own requirements for both misdemeanors and felonies.

Possible Punishments

Another difference between a misdemeanor and a felony is the possible punishments given to convicted criminals. According to Nolo, felony crimes generally carry a punishment of one year or more in jail. Though some criminals may spend their time in county or city jails, these convictions can carry time in federal or state prison. Crimes that carry a smaller sentence of less than one year are often misdemeanors. Those convicted of misdemeanor crimes usually serve time in a local jail. Some misdemeanors may require that criminals spend time in a substance abuse treatment center or do community service in lieu of serving a jail sentence.

Felony Degrees

When the court charges you with a misdemeanor, it usually appears on your criminal record as just a misdemeanor. When convicted of a felony, your record will list the degree of that felony. This often occurs in assault and murder cases. Instead of charging an individual with first degree murder, the court may charge that person with involuntary manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter or another crime. Sexual assault felony cases have different degrees as well. While rape is the most serious crime, someone may plead down to a lesser charge like sexual assault, molestation of a minor or gross sexual imposition. The exact charge determines whether the individual will go on the sex offender registry and how long he or she must register.

Examples of Each

Looking at a few examples of each type of charge is a great way to get an idea of the differences between the two. Threatening someone with violence is an example of a misdemeanor, but if the individual used a weapon in a violent manner, it’s a type of felony. Most tickets that you receive, including those for speeding or not wearing your seat belt, are misdemeanor charges. Those charged with fleeing the scene of an accident or driving under the influence with a minor child in the car may face felony charges.

Jurisdictions have the right to charge suspected criminals with either felonies or misdemeanors based on their own rules and regulations. While the severity of the crime is one difference between a misdemeanor and a felony, it also depends on the sentencing associated with that crime.

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