What is the Distinction Between a Felony, Misdemeanor, and Infraction?

A felony, misdemeanor, and infraction are common classifications of crimes based on severity of punishment. When a criminal law is enacted, the legislature can give a classification of the crime based its seriousness, but it is not required to do so. In other words, some states don’t give the crime any classification at all[1].

Classification of crimes

When a legislature does choose to classify crimes based on severity, it is called grading crimes. The federal government and most state legislatures grade crimes into three categories: felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions. Some states include an additional, hybrid category: the felony-misdemeanor, which simply gives the government the option to prosecute as a felony or a misdemeanor.

The grading of crimes can be confusing because what may be considered a felony in one state, could be considered a misdemeanor in another state, and don’t forget about federal law.

For example, let’s say you are charged with the sale of any amount of marijuana. In California, this is a misdemeanor, but in Utah it is a felony. Under federal law, sale of less than 50 kilograms of marijuana is a felony. That is why it is important to know your state’s criminal laws and how they may apply to you.

What’s the difference between a felony, misdemeanor, and infraction?

Felonies are the most severe, misdemeanors are less severe, and infractions are the least severe out of the three.

Felonies are the most serious crimes in every state and commonly include crimes such as arson, murder, rape, robbery, burglary, terrorism, treason, and kidnapping, among others. Depending on the jurisdiction, a felony can be punishable by the death penalty, prison time, fines, probation, rehabilitation, or home confinement. Most states begin felony sentences at one year, but some states start felony sentences at 18 months or two years.

A misdemeanor is a less serious crime than a felony, but more serious than an infraction. Common examples of misdemeanors are disturbing the peace, petty theft, DUI without injuring anyone, and public intoxication. Misdemeanors tend to be punishable by jail time of less than one year, but can also be punishable by fines, probation, rehabilitation, or community service. It should be noted that there is a difference between prison and jail; jails are operated by city and county authorities, while prisons are operated by state or federal government. Also, jails tend to be less restrictive than prisons. Most states incarcerate felony criminals in prison and misdemeanor criminals in jail.

To recap, the two key differences between felonies and misdemeanors are the length of incarceration and where the criminal is incarcerated. Felonies are usually punishable by incarceration of more than one year, while misdemeanors are usually punishable by incarceration of less than one year. Moreover, criminals charged with a felony will likely be sentenced to prison, while criminals charged with a misdemeanor are likely be sentenced to jail.

Last on the grading scale is an infraction, the mildest crime. An infraction is usually the violation of a regulation, ordinance, municipal code, and/or traffic law, such as jaywalking, littering, and traffic violations, among others. Some states call this a civil violation or civil infraction because it does not amount to a criminal offense at all. Some states may even call this a petty offense. Regardless of the name it is called, infractions are only punishable by tickets or fines, and not incarceration.

Felony, misdemeanor, or infraction? Depends on what state you’re in

Remember, whether a crime is classified as a felony, misdemeanor, or infraction depends on each state’s laws.

The crux of the distinction is the severity of punishment given to the crime by the state legislature. It is also important to be aware that punishment may differ from state to state, even if the crime falls under the same classification. For example, in Alabama, the sale of marijuana, in any amount, is a felony with the possibility of incarceration for 2-20 years. Yet, the same crime in Utah is punishable by five years.

If you’re accused or being investigated for a crime, call Joffe Law, P.A. today at 954-723-0007 for a free consultation. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys in Florida provide aggressive and comprehensive representation on both the state and federal level. Contact us today to protect your rights and reputation.










[1] The following fourteen states do not rely on the grading process (i.e. not using the felony, misdemeanor, and infraction classifications): CA, GA, LA, MA, MD, MI, MS, MT, OK, RI, and VT. (https://www.law.upenn.edu/live/files/183-nj-grading-report)