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What is the Difference Between a Felony and a Misdemeanor?

Posted in Frequently Asked Questions on 01/12/2009

A common question we hear from our clients is “What is the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?”  Felonies are generally viewed as more serious in nature than misdemeanors, and both felonies and misdemeanors are classified as crimes.  A common general definition of a felony is a crime for which a person can be imprisoned for one or more years in state prison and a misdemeanor usually involves a lesser jail time which can be served in a county jail.  Felonies may also carry stiffer fines and penalties than misdemeanors.  Additionally the rules for probation differ for persons convicted of a felony than for those convicted of a misdemeanor.

In reality the difference between felonies and misdemeanors depends on each state’s statutes. Each legal jurisdiction in the United States determines its own statute for what constitutes a felony or a misdemeanor.  In California a felony is classified as a crime punishable by a prison term of 16 months or more.  In Wisconsin, it’s classified as a crime punishable in prison of 12 months or more.  What could be classified as a felony in Wisconsin may not be considered a felony in California.

Some states also have crimes that can be described as “wobblers” which can be classified as either a felony or a misdemeanor depending on the severity, the record of the person being charged, or the judge and prosecutor assigned to the case.  In some cases assault can be classified as a felony, in others it’s classified as a misdemeanor.  The seriousness of the injury, the amount of damages and other factors can be weighed in to determine how to classify the offense.

States can further “muddy” the waters by adding in a category called infractions.  An infraction is a violation of some regulation, municipal code, or ordinance. In some states and cities, an infraction may be a violation of traffic laws as well. Infractions are sometimes referred to as a petty offense.  Some states consider an infraction to be a civil offense while others consider an infraction to be a criminal offense. In the states that consider an infraction a criminal offense, punishment rarely occurs in the form of imprisonment. If someone must serve a short sentence for an infraction, he or she would do so in a local or county jail. When an infraction is considered a civil offense, no crime has been committed.   Crimes that are considered as infractions may not appear in county criminal records searches, but may be located in the municipal or traffic court.  Driving While Intoxicated (DUI) charges may be filed as infractions and may not always appear in the County Court records,

BackTrack provides both felony and misdemeanor criminal records searches to our clients.  Contact our offices at 800-991-9694 for more information.