The consequences of a criminal charge can vary greatly depending on whether that charge is an infraction, misdemeanor or a felony. While all criminal charges are serious, understanding the distinction between your charges and what can happen in your case is the best way to be prepared to assist your attorney with your defense.

Here's what you should know about the line between various types of charges:


These are the least serious types of offenses and are often called "petty crimes" or violations. Typically, an infraction is punishable by a fine -- not jail time. Depending on where you live, something like jaywalking could be considered an infraction. In other areas, that might even be treated as a civil offense, like a traffic ticket for running a red light. Because infractions don't pose a threat to your liberty, you aren't entitled to a jury trial -- nor are you guaranteed an attorney at the state's expense (although you can hire one on your own).


Generally speaking, misdemeanor offenses carry the threat of up to a year in jail -- although that would be a pretty tough sentence if you've got a clean record. You can also be given probation, community service requirements, ordered to pay restitution if a victim suffered any damages, and fined. Misdemeanors may include things like drunk driving, petty theft, and simple possession of small amounts of marijuana.

There are even varying degrees of severity within misdemeanors. For example, federal sentencing guidelines mandate no more than thirty days in jail for a Class C misdemeanor (the least serious type), while a Class B misdemeanor is limited to six months. Only a Class A misdemeanor (the most serious) can cost a year in jail if you're convicted. Because your liberty is threatened, you're generally able to have a jury trial and court-appointed attorney if you need one.


Felonies are much more serious crimes and even the lowest class of felony carries the possibility of serious jail time. In the federal system, for example, a Class E felony (the least serious) can send you to prison for up to five years. A Class A felony (the most serious) can result in life imprisonment -- or even the death penalty. Some common felony offenses include murder, rape, a battery that causes serious harm, kidnapping, extortion, fraud, and grand theft.

If you're charged with a felony, you automatically have the right to a court-appointed attorney (if you can't afford one of your own) and a trial by jury. However, it's generally preferable to have a private criminal defense attorney, especially if your case is serious. Public defenders do a good job, but they don't have the same resources that private attorneys do to devote to a case. Contact a law firm, like The Fitzpatrick Law Firm, for more help.