Criminal offenses are classified as infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies. The major difference between the categories is the seriousness of the crime and the corresponding punishment. Infractions are the least serious, whereas felonies are the most serious criminal offenses.
Infractions are also referred to as petty crimes. They are usually punishable by fines rather than a jail sentence. Infractions can be prosecuted without the accused person going to court. In most states, one can avoid a court appearance by paying the fine noted on his or her citation.
Infractions are usually local crimes related to parking, traffic laws, speed limits, anti-noise ordinances, littering, and building violations. Common traffic infractions include:
- Running a red light
- Failing to wear a seat belt
- Failing to yield
- Not signaling when turning
Disposing of trash improperly and running a business without a proper license can also be considered infractions.
Paying a ticket or fine is the common penalty for infractions. They usually do not lead to jail time unless the guilty party fails to pay the fine.
Depending on the type of infraction and how many times a person has been charged with a particular infraction, it could lead to an increase in auto insurance costs and mandatory attendance at a traffic school. Infractions could appear on an individual’s driving record but not his or her criminal record.
Misdemeanors are crimes with more severe penalties than infractions but less severe punishments than felonies. The maximum sentence for misdemeanors is a jail time of 12 months or less. People charged with misdemeanors usually have a right to a jury trial.
Many states have different levels or classifications of misdemeanors. The severity of the punishment is determined by the level of the misdemeanor.
When a misdemeanor results in a sentence of incarceration, it is usually served in the local county or city jail. Misdemeanor convictions could result in payment of fines, doing community service, serving probation, and restitution.
The convictions will appear on the guilty person’s criminal record. One may also be legally required to state the particularities of his or her misdemeanor on college applications, loan applications, certain job applications, or during interviews.
Felonies are the most serious criminal offenses. They often involve actual or threat of severe physical harm. Most states have different classes or degrees of felonies. Examples of felonies include murder, arson, rape, kidnapping, treason, drug manufacturing and distribution, manslaughter, grand theft, and aggravated assault.
A misdemeanor can be elevated to a felony. For example, driving under the influence is normally a misdemeanor. However, if the driver is a repeat offender or seriously injures or kills someone while driving under the influence, the offense could become a felony.
A felony conviction carries potential imprisonment of at least one year. In some cases, it could result in death or life imprisonment without parole. Felony sentences are usually served in prison. People who commit federal crimes and are convicted typically do time in the national prison system as opposed to state prison.
A felony conviction can also involve a large fine and restitution. Some convictions can be eligible for parole or probation. Felony convictions stay on a person’s criminal record and can limit employment opportunities and housing options.
One may not need a lawyer for minor infractions. Nevertheless, in most criminal cases, people need to use criminal defense attorneys. Criminal convictions can have severe long-term consequences. An attorney can help a person avoid conviction or get a better result and protect his or her rights.