What are the differences between petty offenses, misdemeanors, infractions, and felonies?

Criminal law is a very broad area of law which can cover everything from a traffic ticket to a murder charge. General principles of criminal law such as “the right to remain silent,” are guided by rights and general procedures outlined in the Constitution. However, the specific rights, procedures, and consequences of any type of offense are controlled at the state and local level. Most states will have a classification system which divides criminal offenses into different levels including petty offenses, infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. When a defendant is considering how to handle a charge, they should understand the direct and indirect consequences associated with each offense.

Petty Offenses, Infractions and What they Mean

Petty offenses and infractions are usually the lowest level of criminal offenses. They are sometimes called summary offenses. Offenses usually placed in this category include parking tickets, speeding tickets, driving without a license, and some low level assaults. Because these are such low level offenses, many states do not afford defendant’s the right to a jury trial. A defendant would, however, still have the right to a bench trial. This is where the judge hears and decides the outcome of a case instead of a jury. 

If a defendant looses at this level, then some state procedures will allow them to appeal to a higher court, which could include the right to a jury trial. Most petty offenses do not go to trial. Instead, they are disposed of by a trip or two to the Justice of the Peace or municipal court. With updated court systems, many cases are handled over the phone, via email, and even the Internet, without a defendant ever appearing at the court house. A defendant can learn about these options by reviewing the court’s website or talking to the court coordinator. 

The Range of Punishments and Consequences of a Plea Bargain

Before a defendant enters a plea, even to a petty offense or infraction, the defendant should understand the range of punishment and consequences for their plea. Petty offenses can include a small amount of jail time, but are usually punished by the imposition of a fine and court costs. Like with other criminal cases, defendants can usually plea bargain for probation with conditions like the completion of a safe driving course. Some courts will offer first time offenders access to “pre-trial disposition programs”, which are similar to probation, but after the completion of the program, the case is against the defendant is dismissed completely. 

Because the criminal consequence of the petty offense is so minimal, many defendants enter into plea bargain agreements without knowing all of the consequences. The first decision is usually whether to just pay the fine and go on, or to request a deferred or probated sentence. "Just paying a fine" may seem like the quicker and easier solution, but it will be considered a final conviction. Even though the criminal case is done, the consequences of a criminal conviction will continue. 

Many insurance companies will increase the rates of individuals who are convicted of speeding. In addition, many state agencies that regulate the issuance of driver’s licenses, will automatically suspend a defendant’s driving rights once they receive notice of the final conviction for certain offenses. The offenses usually include driving without insurance or possession of drug paraphernalia. If a defendant is not a legal U.S. citizen, then even a minor assault conviction can result in deportation. 

Misdemeanors and Why they Fall Somewhere in the Middle

Misdemeanors are the mid-level type of offenses. Most states look at these offenses as needing more punishment than just a fine, but less punishment than hard-core prison time. They include offenses such as assaults with minimal injuries, possession of marijuana for personal use (not distribution), and cases at the level of a first or second DUI/DWI. Because these are criminal offenses which can result in a defendant being confined for some period of time, many states afford defendants the right to jury trial. In states where a defendant does not have the right to a jury trial, they will still have the right to a trial before a judge and the right to appeal as with petty offenses, described above.

The consequences of a misdemeanor charge can be more severe than those of a petty offense. If a charge is classified as a misdemeanor, then a defendant found guilty of the misdemeanor can be sentenced to serve time in a county jail, a regional jail facility, or a lower level type prison. Many states will sub-divide misdemeanors into categories and the punishment range will gradually increase with each level. In Pennsylvania, for example, a third degree misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in prison, a second degree by up to two years and a first degree by up to five years.  

In Texas, a defendant convicted of a Class A assault or driving while intoxicated charge can be sentenced to serve a year in county jail. Parole rules for misdemeanors tend to vary by county or parish policies. Some counties will require a defendant to serve a sentence day for day, with no early release provisions. However, because of jail overcrowding, some defendants are given two days (or more) “credit” for each actual day they serve. This means that a defendant ordered to serve 60 days will only have to serve 30 days. 

Research Jail Times and What Your State Might Offer

A defendant should not assume that all jails in their area operate the same. Before they enter a plea for jail time, they should understand the specific rules of the jurisdiction that is responsible for their sentence. Most states will offer deferred sentencing, probation, or pre-trial diversion programs similar to the ones offered for petty offenses, however, the requirements tend to be a more rigorous. The fines, community service hours, and length of probation tend to be higher or longer. The judge also has more discretion to require a defendant to complete certain programs depending on the nature of their charges. For example, a judge can order a defendant to participate in drug or alcohol counseling for DUI offenses or to participate in domestic violence/family counseling for domestic assaults. 

Long-Term Consequences of a Misdemeanor Plea

Misdemeanors can be settled in the same way as petty offenses prior to trial. In large municipalities like Philadelphia or Los Angeles, they initially go to trial before municipal court judges. Other states require a defendant to appear before a Justice of the Peace or a county court judge. As with a petty offense, a defendant should understand all of the consequences of a plea before they decide to accept a plea bargain. Even when a defendant receives a probated or suspended sentence for a DUI charge, many states will still require them to serve time in the county jail as a condition of their probation. Additionally, many states will also suspend their driving privileges. 

Misdemeanors can also affect future travel plans or citizenship. Canada will prohibit a person with a misdemeanor DUI conviction from entering their country. A defendant who was working on obtaining citizenship can be denied citizenship or deported for a DUI or assault offense. If a defendant receives funding for college from a scholarship program, a misdemeanor can result in a disqualification for future funding. If a defendant is a licensed professional, like a plumber or electrician, some states will also suspend their license for a drug or assault related offense. Although a misdemeanor probation may seem simple, the collateral consequences rarely are.

Felony: The Highest Level of Criminal Offense in the U.S.

Felonies are the highest level of criminal offenses because they can result in lengthier prison time. Felonies include a variety of offenses ranging from possession of larger quantities of marijuana to murder. Like misdemeanors, felonies are usually subdivided into degrees, levels, or classes, with the higher the level of the offense, the higher the level of punishment. For example, in Pennsylvania, a third degree felony is punishable by up to seven years in prison, a second-degree felony by up to ten years, and a first degree by up to twenty years.

Homicides are special classes of felonies that can be punished in certain cases by life in prison or death. Because a felony offense involves the consequence of depriving a defendant of their personal liberty, the right to a jury trial is always given in felony cases. If a defendant requests an attorney and cannot afford one, they also have the right to have an attorney assist them with their case. Like with a misdemeanor, a defendant can negotiate a plea bargain, but should also understand all of the consequences of their plea.

The Plea Bargain: Making an Informed Decision

If a defendant is considering accepting a deferred or suspended sentence, they should understand the expunction rules related to their offense. Some states will allow a defendant to expunge a deferred sentence in some cases, but not a suspended sentence. A defendant should also know how the sentence will be used against them later. For example a suspended sentence in Texas cannot be used later to enhance a defendant’s punishment range.  However, a suspended sentence in Louisiana can result in a higher punishment range if a defendant reoffends. Like with misdemeanors, a defendant should understand how a felony probation will affect their scholarship, driver’s license, professional license, or citizenship plans. 

If a defendant decides to accept a prison sentence, they should clarify the stacking and parole rules for their jurisdiction and their case. For example, some states require some sentences to run concurrently (at the same time), while other offenses are required to run consecutively (stacked). Parole rules will also vary by state and offense.  Some states require offenders convicted of aggravated offenses to serve more of their sentence than non-violent offenders. Regardless of the type of offense, (petty, misdemeanor, or felony), before any defendant signs the bottom line of a plea bargain, they should know and understand the short-term and long-term consequences of their plea. Contact a criminal defense attorney for help.