The Difference Between a Misdemeanor & an Infraction

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There are three categories of criminal charges an individual can face when accused of a crime. Each category is defined by the seriousness of the offense and the type of punishment that's attached to the offense. The categories of charges are:

  • Infractions
  • Misdemeanors
  • Felonies. 

Infractions are minor civil violations. Misdemeanors are more serious than infractions, and felonies are the most serious criminal offenses. There's an additional category for criminal charges in some states: capital crimes.

Capital crimes are felonies that are considered to be truly heinous by the law and these felonies carry the death penalty as a potential consequence for the convicted in states where this is an option.

Understanding Infraction Charges

Infractions are minor offenses that usually involve the violation of a municipal code, a state or local traffic rule, an ordinance or an administrative regulation. Infractions are civil rather than criminal offenses, and they don't carry any jail time or probation.

The typical punishment for infractions is the payment of fines as determined by the jurisdiction where the infraction occurred. Infractions don't appear on an offender's criminal record because they're not criminal charges.

Types of Infraction Charges

Common types of infractions include:

  • Failing to stop properly at a stop sign 
  • Littering
  • Seat belt violations
  • Driving without liability insurance. 

Other types of infractions include jaywalking and building code violations.

An individual charged with an infraction has fewer legal options than an individual charged with a misdemeanor or felony. For example, there's no option of a jury trial with an infraction. Instead, the accused individual can either pay a fine or appear before a judge to fight the charge.

Similarly, there is less for the court to prove to find an individual guilty of an infraction. The defendant must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to be convicted of a criminal charge. With a civil charge, the court must simply determine that there is more evidence to support the charge than there is to refute it.

Some individuals feel that it's not worth their time to fight infraction charges and they instead pay their tickets and move on with their lives. Others opt to fight their charges, sometimes to avoid penalties like fines and points on their drivers' licenses and in other cases, for their own peace of mind.

Understanding Misdemeanor Charges

Misdemeanors are criminal offenses that carry jail sentences that don't exceed one year. They're more serious than infractions and can result in the imposition of heavy fines. Anyone convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to jail will serve the jail term in a county or local jail rather than a state or federal prison. Unlike infractions, defendants in misdemeanor cases have a right to a trial by jury.

Types of Misdemeanor Charges

A few common types of misdemeanor charges are:

  • DUI
  • Breach of the peace
  • Trespassing, prostitution
  • Simple assault
  • Shoplifting items below a specified value 
  • Vandalism of relatively low value property  
  • Resisting arrest. 

How an offense is classified can vary from state to state, however, and in some cases, an offense that is charged as a misdemeanor in one state is charged as a felony in another.

Some states don't even use this naming system. In New Jersey, for example, minor offenses are known as disorderly persons offenses and major offenses are charged as indictable offenses. Infractions are known as petty disorderly persons offenses.

Beyond this, some offenses are considered “wobbler” offenses because they can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony depending on the circumstances and details of the case. Some misdemeanors have mandatory minimum punishments. In California, for example, a third DUI carries a mandatory minimum of 120 days in jail.

Read More: What Is a 3rd Degree Misdemeanor?