Categories of Crimes

How you can tell a misdemeanor from a felony.

Because some violations of the law pose a more serious threat to order and public safety than others, the law divides crimes into several different categories. A "petty offense," which may also be called a "violation," is the kind of crime that poses the least risk to society. Petty offenses include such acts as illegal parking, running a stop sign and other traffic offense, and other acts such as littering or burning leaves in violation of a state law or local ordinance.

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In most cases, when you are charged with a petty offense, you will not be placed under arrest, but will instead be issued a citation, a kind of summons that orders you to either pay a fine or appear in court to defend yourself against the charge at a specified date. But if you are wanted for a more serious crime, or if you have previously ignored citations issued to you, you may be placed under arrest and taken into custody.

That's because the law in most jurisdictions makes ignoring citations a misdemeanor, the next category of crimes. Acts classified as misdemeanors are considered to present a greater threat to the public safety than petty offenses. Some of the crimes typically classified as misdemeanors include assault (you threaten to punch your neighbor in the nose) and battery (you actually punch him). Shoplifting of inexpensive items, writing insufficient funds checks for small amounts, and committing acts of vandalism are other crimes usually considered misdemeanors.

While the penalty for committing a petty offense is generally only a fine, in most states the penalty for committing a misdemeanor may include a fine, a prison term of less than one year, or both. Depending on state law, you may or may not be entitled to a trial by jury when you are charged with a misdemeanor, since the U.S. Constitution does not require jury trials when misdemeanor charges are involved.

You are entitled to a trial by jury when you are charged with a felony, the most serious kind of crime. Typical felonies include murder, manslaughter, rape, arson, and robbery. And some crimes which might otherwise be classified as misdemeanors can be considered felonies depending on the manner in which they are committed. For example, assault and battery are usually misdemeanors, but when committed with a gun or other dangerous weapon, or when they are committed in an especially violent or brutal way, they are considered aggravated assault and battery, crimes categorized as felonies. Similarly, while shoplifting an item that costs a few dollars is usually a misdemeanor, shoplifting an item above a value specified by state law (such as $200) may be classified as a felony.

The penalties for committing a felony are the most severe allowed by law. For example, while a misdemeanor may be punishable by up to a year of imprisonment, a felony is usually punishable by at least a year in prison. A fine may also be imposed against a convicted felon. And for some very heinous felonies, such as premeditated murder, the majority of states allow the prosecution to seek the death penalty, while others may provide for a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Copyright 1999 ProSe Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.

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