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Types of Criminal Offenses

Felonies, Misdemeanors and Infractions

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Rear View of a Criminal Wearing Handcuffs
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In the United States there are three basic classifications of criminal offenses - felonies, misdemeanors and infractions. They are distinguished from each other by the seriousness of the offense and the amount of punishment for which someone convicted of the crime can receive.

Criminal offenses are further classified as property crimes or personal crimes. Elected officials on the federal, state and local level pass laws that establish which behavior constitutes a crime and what the punishment will be for someone who is found guilty of those crimes.

What Is a Felony?

Felonies are the most serious classification of crimes, punishable by incarceration of more than a year in prison and in some cases life in prison without parole and even execution. Both property crimes and person crimes can be felonies. Murder, rape and kidnapping are felony crimes, but armed robbery and grand theft also can be felonies.

Not only can the person who committed the crime be charged with a felony, but so can anyone who aided or abetted the felon before or during the crime and anyone who became accessories of the crime after it was committed, such as those who help the felon avoid capture.

Most states have different classifications of felonies with increasing penalties for the most serious crimes. Each class of felony crimes has its own minimum and maximum sentences. But anyone convicted of a felony also loses civil rights, including the right to bear arms and even the right to vote, in some states.

What Is a Misdemeanor?

Misdemeanors are crimes that do not rise to the severity of a felony. They are lesser crimes for which the maximum sentence is 12 months or less in jail. The distinction between misdemeanors and felonies lies within the seriousness of the crime. Aggravated assault (beating someone with a baseball bat, for example) is a felony, while simple battery (slapping someone in the face) is a misdemeanor.

But some crimes that are usually treated as misdemeanors in the courts, can rise to the level of a felony under certain circumstances. For example, in some states, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor, but possession of more than an ounce is considered possession with intent to distribute, a felony.

Likewise, an arrest for driving under the influence is usually a misdemeanor, but if anyone was hurt or killed or if it is not the driver's first DUI offense, the charge can become a felony.

What Is an Infraction?

Infractions are crimes for which jail time is usually not a possible sentence. Sometimes known as petty crimes, infractions are usually punishable by fines, which can be paid without even going to court.

Most infractions are local laws or ordinances passed to deter dangerous or nuisance behavior, such as setting speed limits in school zones, no parking zones, traffic laws or anti-noise ordinances. Infractions can also include operating a business with the proper license or improperly disposing of garbage or trash.

But under some circumstances, an infraction can rise to the level of a more serious crime. Running a stop sign might be a minor infraction, but not stopping for the sign and causing damage or injury is a more serious offense.

Capital Crimes

Capital crimes are those which are punishable by death. They are, of course, felonies. The difference between other classes of felonies and capital felonies is the fact that those accused of capital crimes can pay the ultimate penalty, the loss of their life.

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