Where criminal charges are concerned, there can be a fine line between a misdemeanor and a felony. If you find yourself facing charges, it’s important to understand as much as possible about your situation. That’s the best way to evaluate your options moving forward.
What’s a misdemeanor?
Unlike traffic tickets and similar infractions that are usually handled with a fine, misdemeanors are significant breaches of the law. If you’re charged with a misdemeanor, you could be facing a few days in jail — or a full year. The potential penalty depends on the “level” of the alleged crime — it’s relative seriousness to other crimes.
For example, federal guidelines set the punishment for a Class C misdemeanor (which is the least serious) at more than five days but no more than thirty. On the other hand, Class A misdemeanors (the most serious kind) are punishable by more than six months in jail but no more than a year.
What’s a felony?
Felonies are the most serious kind of criminal activity you can engage in. They include violent crimes like armed robbery and murder, but they also include nonviolent crimes like embezzlement and money laundering. The prison term for a felony conviction is generally longer than a year.
Under federal guidelines, for example, even a Class E felony (the least serious) is punishable by up to five years in prison — while a Class A felony can result in life imprisonment. In extreme cases, a Class A felony can even warrant the death penalty.
What other differences are there?
Whether you’re convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony, you’ll have a criminal record. However, a felony typically carries more limitations. In some states, you cannot vote with a felony record. You also cannot have a firearm. A felony record may also make it difficult to find housing or employment.
In addition, sentences for misdemeanors (unlike felonies) are usually served in county jails — not large prisons. That’s why many people refer to felony sentences as “hard time.”
It’s important to remember that prosecutors often have a lot of latitude when charging a case. An experienced defense attorney may be able to bargain a higher felony down to a lower one or even a misdemeanor. Find out all your legal options before you decide how you want to proceed.