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Classification of Criminal Offenses

From minor infractions to capital felonies, if you’ve been charged with any type of crime, you’ll likely have to interact with the criminal justice system in some way, whether in court, during probation checkups or while serving a sentence.

When you’re facing criminal charges, the severity of the consequences depends in part on whether the charge is a felony or misdemeanor.

Each case is different. You should understand the specific charges against you. A criminal attorney can explore how you may fight your charges. Free case evaluation by a local defense attorney:

Felony Offenses

A felony is the most serious type of crime in the United States, and a felony can come with a heavy punishment.

In many jurisdictions, felonies are subdivided into levels of severity, usually designated by letters or numbers.

Examples of Felony Crimes

Possible consequences* of a felony conviction may include:

  • 1 year or more in prison and/or fines
  • Restrictions on voting, serving on a jury, working in certain fields, owning firearms
  • Difficulty finding a job
  • Deportation (for non-citizens)

Felony Convictions and Incarceration

Some jurisdictions classify criminal offenses by where an offender must serve time. For example, most felons must serve time in a federal prison, rather than a county or local jail.

In some areas, felony classifications allow for repeat offenders to serve longer sentences than first-time felons.

If a suspect is on trial for a capital offense (for which the death sentence could be handed down), the suspect is entitled to a trial with a 12-person jury.

For the death sentence to be awarded, all 12 jurors must agree that the suspect is guilty.

Misdemeanor Offenses

Misdemeanors fall in the middle of criminal offenses – less serious than felonies, but more serious than infractions.

Like felonies, misdemeanors are often classified by severity of offense, including gross (high) misdemeanors, normal misdemeanors and petty misdemeanors.

Examples of Misdemeanor Crimes

  • Petty theft
  • Public intoxication
  • Simple assault
  • Prostitution
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Trespass
  • Vandalism

Possible consequences* of a misdemeanor conviction may include:

  • 5 days – 1 year in jail
  • Community service
  • Probation
  • Fines

Misdemeanor Convictions and Incarceration

Most misdemeanor offenders serve time in a local jail, rather than a federal prison.

In some cases, those found guilty of misdemeanors can complete their jail sentences on the weekends, while maintaining a full-time job during the week.


Also known as “petty offenses,” infractions are the least serious crimes in U.S. criminal law. Most infractions amount to a violation of a local ordinance, a municipal code, an administrative regulation or a traffic rule.

In fact, in many jurisdictions, infractions are considered civil offenses rather than criminal offenses, meaning that punishments are less severe.

Possible Consequences* of an Infraction

  • 5 days or less in jail
  • Fines
  • An order to fix the offending situation

Infractions and Incarceration

Because most infractions are not considered criminal offenses, they generally don’t lead to jail time.

Most infractions don’t even require a court trial to determine an offender’s guilt – for some infractions (like certain traffic offenses), the citation given to offenders holds the same authority as a conviction for more serious crimes.

Examples of Infractions (“Petty Offenses”)

  • Jaywalking
  • Littering
  • Disturbing the peace
  • Some traffic offenses

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The Fourth Amendment and Criminal Offenses

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives police officers the right to arrest those suspected of committing a felony if probable cause exists that a felony was committed.

In other words, police don’t have to witness an actual felony crime to make an arrest, but they have to have probable cause that a felony occurred.

Generally, to arrest someone for most misdemeanor crimes, police must witness the actual crime. (Note: police must also issue Miranda warnings when they arrest someone, an attorney can talk to you about your other rights.)

Location/Severity and Crime Classification

Note also that some crimes may be classified based on where or in what degree they were committed.

Carrying a knife, for example, is generally not a crime unless the carrier is in a restricted area like a school. Then it could be a serious crime.

Similarly, drug possession and theft can generally be classified as either felonies or misdemeanors, depending on the amount of drugs possessed or the value of property stolen.

For more information on the classification of criminal offenses and where your charge may fall on this spectrum, get in touch with a local criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible by either filling out our form that will give you a free criminal case evaluation by a lawyer.

*Consequences vary depending on where you live; these are common consequences across the 50 states. For more information on your local laws, connect with a defense attorney

The above summary of criminal offenses is by no means all-inclusive and is not legal advice. Laws may have changed since our last update.

For the latest information on criminal offenses, speak to a criminal defense attorney in your area.

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