In the criminal justice system, misdemeanors are the lowest-level charges that police are likely to arrest a person for, actions that include trespassing, public intoxication, assault, prostitution, petty theft, vandalism, and possession of small amounts of certain drugs. Punishment for misdemeanors is limited to one year in jail or less (except for certain statutes which may punish specific misdemeanors with additional jail time).
There are several categories of misdemeanors, from petty through Classes A to C, according to the amount of jail time a person may be sentenced to if convicted. Petty misdemeanors generally are nonviolent and injure no one. Class A to C misdemeanors are somewhat subjective, the potential penalty depending on the police and prosecutor’s reading of the defendant’s intent and his past criminal history to determine the classification.
Infractions less serious than misdemeanors may be considered administrative violations, including lack of adherence to building codes, unregistered dogs, failure to pay fines or to follow other local ordinances. These actions generally do not result in arrest and are handled with notices and tickets.
More serious than misdemeanors are felony charges, which are punishable by a year or more in prison. Felonies are often violent crimes or crimes with victims and may include multiple DUI offenses, aggravated assault, theft over a certain dollar limit, breaking and entering, violent domestic assault, violating a restraining order, unlawful possession of a firearm, and more.
Some sources say there are 10 million misdemeanor charges brought against suspects in the United States each year, compared to one million felony charges. Criminal convictions, including misdemeanors, stay on an individual’s record for life and can be found by searching on Infotracer.com.
Many acts fall between clear definitions of misdemeanor and felonious behavior, and thus are subject to the judgement of police and prosecutors involved. For instance, a person who has a clean criminal record but is discovered to be under the influence of alcohol after an accident in which a passenger is killed may be charged with misdemeanor manslaughter or felony vehicular homicide, depending on the judgement of the authorities.
The massive number of misdemeanor charges on court dockets everyday have lead to a criminal justice system that quickly processes people without serious regard for due process, some critics say. Defendants may be encouraged to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges to avoid detention, but suffer the consequences of having a conviction on their record thereafter, which may affect many aspects of life from job prospects to college admission and professional license eligibility. Many are rejected for military service based on a criminal record as well.
Probation is often a substitute for actual jail time when a person is convicted of a misdemeanor. The approximate equivalent of one year in jail is three years probation, and fines are likely to be levied as part of the sentence too.
Most states allow individuals to seal or expunge misdemeanors from their lifelong criminal records, keeping the information from view of all but law enforcement and judges. Each state has established procedures for this measure, and most require a certain amount of time to elapse before an individual is eligible for expungement or sealing.