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Infractions, Misdemeanors, and Felonies: What to Know About These Offenses

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Most people have heard the titled terms in relation to legal matters, but perhaps you've wondered how crimes end up being classified in this manner. Read on for a simple explanation of infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies.


The most minor of all legal offenses, an infraction never results in jail time for the offender. In most cases, infractions are related to traffic violations and incur only fines. It should be mentioned that some traffic violations can be more serious and are classified as misdemeanors or even felonies.

Differences in Misdemeanors and Felonies

These two categories are more serious and can involve jail time as a punishment. Each state separates these two categories differently. While there are exceptions, most misdemeanors don't involve bodily harm. For example, shoplifting is often classified as a misdemeanor. If the offender used a weapon during the commission of a robbery, however, it becomes a felony.

Additionally, the line between a misdemeanor and a felony can be crossed based on these factors:

  • Prior convictions – in the above example, a shoplifter who has priors could be prosecuted under a felony.
  • Bodily harm – in the above example the shoplifter ran out of the store and knocked a pregnant woman down causing bodily injury to her.
  • Use of a weapon while committing a felony
  • The items stolen were of a higher value
  • The drugs found were in greater quantities.

It should also be noted that the court that prosecutes the crime affects the choice of a misdemeanor or a felony. Crimes that come under the heading of the federal system may carry more punishment and are more likely to be classified as felonies. Those same crimes in the state system might be considered less serious.


Jail time can be ordered for the perpetrators of a misdemeanor, but these offenses usually carry a maximum of one year or less jail time. Misdemeanor offenders are never sentenced to prison. Some states break misdemeanors down a bit further. You might be charged with a petty misdemeanor or a regular misdemeanor with the petty misdemeanor carrying less punishment than the regular misdemeanor.


Jail time is not always a given for those who commit felonies. Just because jail or prison time can be handed down, the judge always has a discretion as long as mandatory sentencing guidelines are followed. This classification of crimes can also be further broken down to classes, levels, or degrees. These classifications take into consideration the same factors that separate misdemeanors and felonies. For example, a class one felony may be used to sentence perpetrators based on how much money was involved, the number of drugs, the record of the defendant, etc.

Speak to a criminal defense attorney to learn more about these classifications and what they might to a given crime and the punishment