Criminal charges are classified into misdemeanor and felony offenses. Misdemeanor crimes are generally less severe than felonies. Nevertheless, each jurisdiction has the authority to decide specifically which offenses are charged as misdemeanors and which are felony offenses.
How misdemeanor offenses differ from felonies
Depending on the jurisdiction, misdemeanors can also be non-indictable offenses. Non-indictable can mean the crime will not be listed on the defendant’s permanent record or the crime is punishable by less than six months in jail. Some jurisdictions use the term “non-indictable” to refer to all offenses that are not felonies. The definition may vary from one jurisdiction to another.
Overall, most states define misdemeanors as crimes that are punishable by no more than one year in jail.
States generally rank misdemeanors according to the amount of loss in terms of dollar value or physical injury the victim causes, depending on the nature of the crime. Therefore misdemeanors are usually categorized by “classes” or “degrees.” Some crimes may either be charged as a misdemeanor or as a felony depending on the severity of the offense. Common misdemeanors include:
- Resisting arrest
- Simple assault
- Petty theft
- Prostitution and solicitation
- Some cybercrimes
- Loitering and prowling
- Disorderly conduct
- Driving with a suspended license
- Some drug possession offenses
Legal defenses for misdemeanors
Although misdemeanors are sentenced less severely than felonies, defendants require a legal defense strategy to avoid jail time and paying fines. Anyone who has been charged with a misdemeanor should retain experienced legal representation. There are several legal defenses an attorney may leverage to protect a client who is facing a misdemeanor charge.
Necessity as a defense
A defendant’s attorney may successfully argue the defense of necessity if the defendant engaged in criminal activity to deal with an emergency or to prevent a more severe crime from occurring. For example, a random stranger who breaks into a car to rescue a child who is locked inside on a hot day may be acquitted on a misdemeanor charge of vandalism.
Mistake of fact
Mistake of fact is a defense that involves a mistaken fact that is critical to a criminal charge. Some offenses like larceny require the defendant to have knowingly deprived someone else of their own property. For example, a defendant who is at a bar and takes a wallet off the bartop because he mistakes it for his own wallet is unlikely to be convicted.
A defendant may argue self-defense if he or she used reasonable force to prevent an imminent violent threat. To prevail on a self-defense argument, most laws require the defendant to have used an amount of force that was proportionate to the threat posed by the defendant. For example, if the defendant is being threatened from a distance of 50 feet by someone who has a baseball bat, the court may rule against the defendant if he or she shot the assailant 50 times.
In most states, the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor offense is one year in jail. A handful of states set the maximum sentence higher at 1.5 years or a few years in some cases.
Pennsylvania differs from every other state in that a person who is convicted of a misdemeanor may be sentenced to time in prison.
In most states, judges may also impose other sentences as alternatives to jail. Instead of a jail sentence, defendants who are convicted on a misdemeanor charge may be:
- Put on probation
- Ordered to pay a fine
- Ordered to pay restitution
- Required to do community service
Defendants may also avoid jail time through diversion programs
Typically, cases that involve nonviolent misdemeanors are eligible for pretrial diversion programs. Defendants who agree to a program are usually required to plead guilty, and the court offers a plan for the defendant to complete in exchange for the court suspending sentencing. If the defendant completes the conditions of the program, the court will dismiss the charge and expunge the arrest from the defendant’s record.
Future impact of a misdemeanor charge
Even though most state courts do not impose a prison sentence for misdemeanor charges, a conviction can have a lasting effect. Having a misdemeanor charge can negatively affect future employment and housing prospects. People who work in a public office may experience immediate career consequences if convicted. Even in a social context, a misdemeanor conviction can negatively impact a person’s reputation.
If you or someone you know has been charged with a misdemeanor offense, contacting a criminal defense attorney may be the key to avoiding jail and a criminal record.