Whether or not you ever find yourself facing legal issues, it's useful to have a working knowledge of everyday legal terminology. Criminal acts fall into two categories: misdemeanors and felonies. But what's the difference? Which comes with a heavier punishment and what offenses are common among each? Let's break it down.
Individuals charged with less serious and often nonviolent crimesusually face misdemeanor charges. This type of offense can range from petty theft and trespassing to public intoxication and possession of small amounts of marijuana, depending on the jurisdiction.
States use classification systems to determine penalties for both misdemeanors and felonies, and these punishments can vary by state. In most states, Class A crimes (or Class 1 in some areas) are more severely punished, while Class C (or Class 3) are less so.
In Texas, for example, Class A misdemeanors are punishable by a fine not to exceed $4000, no more than a year in jail or both, while Class C misdemeanors result in fines of $500 or less.
The most serious charge an individual can face is a felony. These crimes are punishable by imprisonment, ranging from one year to life. The death penalty may also be on the table in certain states. Murder, animal cruelty, tax evasion, pornography and threatening an official all fall in the felony category.
Along with punishment determined in a court of law, some felony charges also result in a loss of rights, such as voting or owning a firearm, even after time has been served.
Some crimes can be sentenced as either a misdemeanor or a felony; they're often referred to as "wobblers." In these cases, it's up to prosecutors to determine how a defendant will be charged and up to judges to decide how a defendant will be sentenced.