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What is a Misdemeanor Offense?

By Lori Smith
Updated May 23, 2024
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In the United States, a misdemeanor offense is a classification of crime. It is not as serious as a felony, but in many cases, a convicted individual is remanded into custody, ordered to pay a fine, or both. Each jurisdiction differentiates between the classes of misdemeanor crime and the penalty imposed. In other words, the same violation may result in a different punishment, depending on where the crime was committed. The type of infraction, and aggravating circumstances, can also determine the classification. Typically, a person who is found guilty of a misdemeanor offense serves his or her time in a local jail, whereas felony sentences are normally carried out in a prison.

For the most part, a first degree or Class A misdemeanor offense is usually the most serious of this category. It often involves an act that directly affects another person. Examples of this classification may include theft, prostitution, and drug possession. In many places, certain traffic crimes — such as driving under the influence (DUI) and reckless driving — also fall into this group.

If a person is found guilty of a Class A misdemeanor, he or she may be sentenced to serve up to one year in jail. A few jurisdictions extend maximum incarceration for up to two years, especially if the individual is a repeat offender. Many times, a fine is also imposed on the person who is convicted of this type of crime, usually up to $1,000 US Dollars (USD). In some areas, fines may be higher, especially if there are aggravating circumstances.

Each district governs the way a misdemeanor offense is classified. A second degree, or Class B offense is considered a less serious crime, and generally results in no more than 60 days in jail. Fees related to this do not normally exceed $500 USD. Some jurisdictions also categorize a minor misdemeanor offense as a third degree, or Class C, although not all areas include this additional tier. Examples of violations that may result in this charge often include acts such as prowling, disorderly conduct, and petty theft of small amounts of cash or items with little value, usually less than $100 USD.

Many local governments sentence first-time offenders to probation in lieu of jail. Community service is also frequently ordered, as well as a statutory fine. If an individual is a repeat lawbreaker, however, a misdemeanor offense may be upgraded to a higher level, and sentencing may be based on the guidelines for a higher category of crime.

Generally, the United States is one of the only common law countries that continue to classify crimes in categories of misdemeanor and felony offenses. Some countries with similar legal systems have eliminated the distinction. Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and the Republic of Ireland, for example, now classify crimes into either a summary or indictable offense.

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Discussion Comments

By Vincenzo — On May 17, 2014

It's actually a good thing that the United States still has misdemeanors. Courts that deal with misdemeanors are set up to mill through them quickly and the criminal procedures are also usually revamped so the cases can be disposed of in a hurry and inexpensively.

Why is that good? A misdemeanor is far less serious than a felony, so why drag someone through a full, formal court procedure for a traffic ticket or other minor offense?

By Logicfest — On May 16, 2014

Another difference is that misdemeanors are typically heard in a lesser court and not in front of a jury. Another difference is that judgments rendered by a judge in a misdemeanor case can be appealed to a higher court and the defendant can request a jury trial.

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