• What′s the difference between a felony and a misdemeanor?

    Date: 09.07.07 | by Judge Tom.

    “High crimes and misdemeanors”    –     “petty and status offenses”

    “city ordinances”    –     “felonies”    –     “infractions”

    You′ve probably heard most of these terms. Through TV, the movies, or personal experience, you′ve come across these references to crime. But what exactly are they, and what do they mean to you?

    Crime is divided into categories:  felonies, misdemeanors, and petty offenses. If a crime is committed by a minor, it′s referred to as a delinquent act. The seriousness of the act determines its classification and the resulting penalty.

    Photo by davidsonscott15

    A felony is the most serious crime. Felonies include murder, assault, residential burglary, kidnapping, and other violent offenses. The penalty for conviction of a felony may include jail in excess of one year, probation, prison, or a life sentence. The death penalty is not applicable to anyone under 18 years of age.

    A misdemeanor isn′t as serious as a felony. Conviction may result in a jail term, usually up to one year. You may also be placed on probation with specific terms such as counseling, drug tests, or community service hours. Misdemeanor offenses include shoplifting, trespassing, criminal damage, and disorderly conduct.

    Photo by Doug Letterman

    A petty offense or infraction is any violation of the law that isn′t designated a misdemeanor or a felony. These are lesser offenses such as underage smoking, seat belt violations, or littering. They usually result in a small fine. A status offense is any act committed by an underage person that wouldn′t be an offense if committed by an adult. Runaway incidents, curfew violations, possession of alcohol or tobacco, and truancy are all examples of status offenses. These acts are against the law only because you’re a minor.

    In 1935, the Supreme Court commented on the job of a prosecutor: “A prosecutor must maintain a twofold aim . . .that guilt shall not escape nor innocence suffer.  .  .  . The citizen’s safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes.” This was in a case where the prosecution abused its power resulting in the reversal of a conviction. See Harry Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 55 S.Ct. 629 (1935).

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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    4 Comments subscribe to these comments.

    • ljubica
      Tue, 27 Dec 2011 at 10:52

      is drug possession and intention to sell a felony
      Dear Ijubica: Possesssion of drugs may be a felony depending on the quantity involved and the laws in the state where this happened. Sale or attempt to sell drugs is likewise a felony depending on the circumstances of the case. For specific information, Google the name of your state and “possession of drugs law.” Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Hannah
      Wed, 08 Feb 2012 at 06:50

      where does stealing a car fit into this? what would the punnishment for that be?
      Dear Hannah: That depends on the laws in your state, the circumstances of the theft, the position of the victim and prosecutor, etc. Google the name of your state and “car theft” for information. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • kasera harrizon
      Thu, 23 Feb 2012 at 04:11

      where is the drawing line between felonies and misdemeanors
      Dear Kasera: Every state sets its own rules regarding what’s a felony and what’s a misdemeanor. It depends on the severity of the crime, the amount of money involved, the extent of the personal injury or property damage, etc. Take a look at the post below on AsktheJudge for more about this.

      Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

    • Hampo
      Thu, 26 Jun 2014 at 04:27

      2 years ago, my friend broke a very expensive window while at work. They didn’t call the cops or anything so there wasn’t any legal intervention. At the end, they forced him to quit since he is the one who admitted. Now he wants to apply for a bank job, and he is nervous because he thinks they will see that incident show up in his record. Will it? And he was over 18 years old when that happened.
      Dear Hampo: If he was never charged and never had to appear in court, then there wouldn’t be any record. Based on what you have described, your friend can rest assured that a potential employer would not find out about the incident.
      (Check our Resource Directory for more help and resources in your area. This is information only – not legal advice.)

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