Understanding Criminal Charges: What Are Infractions, Misdemeanors, And Felonies?

In the US justice system, defendants can be charged with three different types of crimes. These crimes range from the mundane to the utmost severe, and it's important to understand the process and your rights for handling each type of charge.


These violations of the law are almost not considered to be crimes at all. They are the least serious type of law-breaking and are often handled without ever actually going before a judge. In some cases, you can dispute an infraction at a hearing, but trials and juries are just plain unnecessary. The punishment for a single infraction is at worst a fine, and in many cases may just be a verbal warning from a police officer. They are the most common type of crime.

In serious cases, infractions can be upgraded to misdemeanors if the situation permits it. A repeat offender, for example, or one who showed willful disregard for the law while committing an infraction could face misdemeanor charges instead. Usually, though, infractions are handled with stiff words and tickets from police.


A step up from infractions are more serious misdemeanors, which at least require a hearing and sometimes may even involve a trial before the judge, You can even request a jury trial for misdemeanor charges that can result in over six months of jail time. Misdemeanors carry sentences ranging from fines to probation to jail time, though there are limits on the severity of the sentences possible. Fines normally stay below $1,000 and jail time below 1 year. Jail time is almost always in a local prison, as well.

Because of the heavier penalties possible, defendants who face misdemeanor charges have a legal right to an attorney to help them during legal proceedings. This is especially vital if you are facing more than one misdemeanor charge, or if the charges you face are wobbler charges, which can be upgraded from misdemeanor to felony as the prosecutor sees fit. This often happens more serious versions of base crimes, such as attacking someone with a weapon instead of just using your fists.


The most serious of all types of crime, felonies carry the harshest sentences and are treated with the most gravity in the court room. Like some misdemeanors, felonies carry minimum punishments, and these can range from mandatory minimum years of jail time to thousands of dollars in fines. For the most serious felonies, the maximum sentences include the death penalty or life in prison without a chance at parole. 

Unless you plead guilty or no contest to the charges or make a plea bargain with the prosecutor to downgrade your charges to misdemeanors, you will always face a grand jury trial for felony crimes. The rights of the accused in a felony trial are taken very seriously, and you and your lawyer will have multiple chances to review the evidence against you and present new evidence to the court. Proceedings for felony trials can go on longer than for other types of crimes to ensure that the court gets the full picture before rendering a verdict.

If you are convicted of a felony crime, you face serious penalties even after your sentence is carried out. Felons are not permitted to own firearms or get hunting and fishing licenses. Many states also prohibit felons from voting in any level of elections. You can never serve on a jury if convicted, and you are also barred from various professions where felony status might influence your trustworthiness, such as government positions or teaching jobs.

Understanding the severity of the charges against you is the first step to successfully proving your innocence in court. Whether you're fighting a speeding ticket or a felony assault charge, you'll need solid knowledge of the justice system and the options available to you for your defense. If you currently face charges and need help fighting them, get in contact with a lawyer right away. Places like the Kaiser Law Group can give you more information.