A criminal act that is less serious than a felony is considered to be a “misdemeanor.” While specific laws vary by jurisdiction, misdemeanors generally include such acts as disturbing the peace, petty theft, drunk driving with no injury to others, public drunkenness, simple assault and battery, and traffic violations. These are tried in the local municipal or justice courts, and carry punishments including fines and/or incarceration in the county jail. To explore this concept, consider the following misdemeanor definition.

Definition of Misdemeanor


  1. A criminal offense less serious than a felony.
  2. A minor crime punishable by a fine or short jail time.


Late 15th century   English mis- demeanor

What is Misdemeanor

Whether a crime is considered a misdemeanor or a felony depends on its maximum potential punishment, which is specified in the criminal code for each jurisdiction. Generally speaking, any crime that carries potential jail time of one year or less is classified as a misdemeanor, and a crime that may be punished by imprisonment for more than one year is classified as a felony. In some jurisdictions, certain crimes may result in either misdemeanor charges or felony charges, at the discretion of the prosecutor. These are referred to as “wobblers.”

Individuals sentenced to jail time for a misdemeanor often serve that time in the county jail, as opposed to a state or federal prison, which houses those sentenced to imprisonment for a year or more.

Misdemeanor Classes

Every state has a system for classifying both felonies and misdemeanors, the classifications specified in the state’s penal code. Misdemeanors are most commonly divided into either Class 1 through Class 3, or Class A through Class C. In either case, Classes 1 and A denote the most serious crimes and carry the greatest penalties. Many jurisdictions also recognize “unclassified” misdemeanors, often called Class 4 or Class D misdemeanors, which are considered on a case-by-case basis, the punishment determined at the judge’s discretion.

Legal Penalties by Misdemeanor Class

Specific penalties vary by each state’s laws. Some states do not sentence defendants to serve jail time for Class 4/Class D misdemeanors, and in most states repeat offenders may be sentenced to higher penalties. Common penalties by class include:




1 or A Up to $5,000 Up to 12 months
2 or B Up to $1,000 6 to 9 months
3 or C Up to $1,000 Up to 3 months
4 or D (or “unclassified”) Up to $500 Up to 30 days

Class A Misdemeanor or Class 1 Misdemeanor

The most serious misdemeanor classification, Class A misdemeanors, or Class 1 misdemeanors, often result in up to 12 months imprisonment in the local jail, and may include the addition of a hefty fine. Sentences for Class A misdemeanors are very similar to lesser felonies. Criminal acts classified as Class A misdemeanors or Class 1 misdemeanors may include:

Class B Misdemeanor or Class 2 Misdemeanor

Class B misdemeanors, or Class 2 misdemeanors, are those acts considered less severe than Class A. The prosecution takes into account the nature and severity of the crime, as well as the defendant’s character and whether he has a criminal history in determining the harshness of the punishment. Criminal acts classified as Class B or Class 2 misdemeanors may include:

Class C Misdemeanor or Class 3 Misdemeanor

Class C misdemeanors, or Class 3 misdemeanors, are minor offenses for which punishment usually does not include jail time in many jurisdictions. Habitual offenders may, however, find their sentence enhanced, with jail time and a larger monetary fine. Criminal acts classified as Class C or Class 3 misdemeanors may include:

  • Criminal mischief
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Certain types of assault
  • Reckless damage or destruction
  • Leaving a child unattended in a vehicle
  • Criminal trespass
  • Theft of property worth less than $50
  • Issuing a bad check
  • Falsely reporting a missing child or person

Misdemeanor Examples

In 2011, a woman residing in Texas was “just kicking it” in her back yard, drinking beer with friends, when they ran out of cigarettes. The woman knew she shouldn’t drive while intoxicated, so she picked up the phone, dialed 9-1-1, and asked for deputies to deliver cigarettes to her home. She thought it was funny, but the deputies weren’t as amused as the woman, and arrested her. The woman was later charged with a Class C misdemeanor, which carries a potential sentence of up to 180 days in the county jail, without cigarettes, and a maximum fine of $2,000.

Misdemeanor vs. Felony Assault

Assault is a serious crime that may be classified as either a felony or misdemeanor, depending on the circumstances. Defined as the act of offensive or harmful contact with another person, or of creating fear or apprehension in another person that he will be harmed, a charge of assault does not require that the victim be physically injured or even touched. If the accused has threatened the victim with bodily harm, and the victim reasonably believed himself in danger of being harmed, the act is considered assault.

Simple assault, usually resulting in a misdemeanor assault charge, is the least serious form of assault. Simple assault may include physically attacking, pushing, or slapping another person in a heated argument, or engaging in threatening or intimidating behavior, such as raising a fist and moving toward the victim in a menacing manner.

Felony assault involves more serious acts of violence or threats, usually resulting in serious injury to the victim. Felony assault includes such acts as:

  • Striking, or threatening to strike, a person with a weapon or object
  • Assault with the intent to commit another felony, such as rape or robbery
  • Assault that results in serious physical injury or permanent disfigurement to the victim
  • Shooting a person, or threatening to kill someone while pointing or brandishing a gun at the victim
  • Assault or threat of violence while disguising one’s identity
  • Assault against any member of a protected class, including elderly or developmentally disabled individuals, healthcare providers, social services workers, and police officers

Misdemeanor Traffic Violations

Most traffic tickets are classified as “violations” or “infractions,” and carry lower penalties than serious criminal offenses. Such violations include mechanical issues, or “fix-it tickets,” and certain moving violations as running a red light or stop sign, making an illegal turn, or speeding. Traffic-related offenses that move into the categories of misdemeanors and felonies often result in injuries to others or destruction of property.

Misdemeanor traffic violations are punishable by fines and/or jail time of less than one year. Such violations may include:

  • Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Driving without a valid driver’s license
  • Driving without insurance (in some states)
  • Failing to stop at the scene of an accident
  • Reckless driving that potentially endangers others

Drivers committing misdemeanor traffic violations are usually arrested and required to post bail to be released from jail pending trial.

Felony Traffic Violations

Traffic offenses that result in felony criminal charges usual involve severe injuries or serious property damage. A large number of felony traffic violations are the result of DUI-related incidents. Traffic violations that commonly result in felony charges include:

  • Hit-and-run accidents
  • Repeat DUI convictions
  • Vehicular homicide
  • Repeat traffic offenses such as driving without a valid license

Criminal Record and Background Checks

With the increasing incidence of employers conducting pre-employment background checks, it is important for individuals to be aware of how their criminal acts appear on their record. Many employers do not even consider hiring an individual with a felony on his record, and with the large number of people seeking employment who have no criminal history, getting a job with a misdemeanor is increasingly difficult.

With the advent of online record keeping, the truth is even a misdemeanor is likely to be discoverable forever. Not only are convictions available, but arrests and felony or misdemeanor charges as well, with a brief statement of the type of crime charged, such as “assault,” or “theft.” In most states, individuals with misdemeanor convictions may seek an expungement after a specified length of time, which varies by state, but is usually two years.

Contrary to popular belief, however, an expungement does not erase or seal a criminal record, but adds to it a new that the case was later dismissed. An expungement effectively confirms that the individual has completed all the terms of his conviction, and is released from all penalties resulting from the conviction. Felony convictions cannot be expunged in most states, though other remedies may exist, such as a pardon, after a more lengthy time period.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Criminal Mischief – The act of intentionally or recklessly damaging another’s property, including defacing, damaging, altering, and destroying tangible property.
  • Criminal Trespass – Unlawfully and knowingly entering or remaining in a dwelling or other premises, or real property, which is fenced, enclosed, or otherwise secured to keep intruders out.
  • Expungement – The process of sealing arrest and conviction records.
  • Habitual Offender – A person who repeatedly commits crimes. Most states have a certain number of convictions required to result in the label of habitual offender, which garners stiffer penalties.
  • Pardon – An official act of forgiving a crime. A pardon may only be granted by the Governor of any state or the President of the United States.
  • Protected Class – A class of people that cannot by law be discriminated against, including race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.
  • Terroristic Threat – A threat to commit violence against another with the intent of causing fear or terror, or with the intent of causing evacuation of a public or private building, or serious public inconvenience.