Difference Between a Misdemeanor & a Gross Misdemeanor in Washington State

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Washington State classifies crimes as misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and felonies, which are further categorized as Class A, B and C. The maximum jail time for simple misdemeanors is 90 days with a $1000 fine. Gross misdemeanor charges carry a sentence of up to 364 days and a top fine of $5000.

Misdemeanors are a less severe type of crime than felonies, yet people still spend time in jail after a conviction. In Washington State, some misdemeanors are classified as simple misdemeanors while others are gross misdemeanors.

Simple misdemeanors are the least severe crimes while gross misdemeanors are more serious, but still not rising to the level of a felony. The type of behavior that will convict a person of a gross misdemeanor is more reprehensible and the punishment greater than that of a simple misdemeanor.

Definition of a Misdemeanor

In most states, criminal offenses are divided into two categories: misdemeanors and felonies. Felonies are the more serious crimes and include murder, rape and burglary as well as serious drug charges. Misdemeanors are the less serious crimes. Some states also recognize infractions as a class of crimes, and these are even less serious than misdemeanors.

In many states, misdemeanors are defined as crimes carrying a maximum penalty of a year in jail. In Washington State, however, the different categories of misdemeanors are defined differently.

Washington Misdemeanor Categories

The state of Washington divides misdemeanor offenses into simple misdemeanors, often just called misdemeanors, and gross misdemeanors. The difference between being convicted of a simple or a gross misdemeanor can be quite a bit of jail time.

Washington defines simple misdemeanor offenses as those crimes with a maximum jail penalty of 90 days in jail with a maximum fine of $1,000. The criminal offense is called a gross misdemeanor if the maximum jail time is 364 days. Those convicted can face fines up to $5,000. Examples of Washington State simple misdemeanors include prostitution, possession of marijuana and shoplifting. A first offense of driving under the influence is a gross misdemeanor.

The District and Municipal Courts in Washington State hear all misdemeanor cases, whether simple or gross misdemeanors. The Superior Court hears all felonies.

Felonies in Washington

In Washington State, as in all states, felony crimes are much more serious than misdemeanors. The state defines a felony as a criminal offense that has a maximum penalty of over a year of prison time. Some are punishable by life in prison.

The state divides felonies further into Class A, B and C felonies. Class A felonies are the most serious and can carry penalties up to life in prison; fines max out at $50,000. Class B felonies have much lower maximum penalties. Those convicted face penalties of up to 10 years in prison and fines top out at $20,000. Class C felonies are punishable by a maximum of half the prison and half the fines as Class B felonies, up to 5 years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

In addition, Washington State law classifies felonies under a system of seriousness levels ranging from Level I to Level XV. The sentencing ranges are set out in the codes for each level.

Classification of Crimes in Washington

It is not easy to determine which crimes are charged as misdemeanors, gross misdemeanors and felonies in Washington State. One way is to look up an offense in Chapter 9A of the codes (called RCW). For example, looking up Theft and Robbery at RCW 9A.56 gives you the various classifications of theft that a Washington prosecutor might charge under various circumstances.

Chapter 9A provides definitions of each crime and states whether it is charged as a felony, gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor. This will often depend on the circumstances. For example, if a person was arrested for a DUI causing an accident, the prosecutor charges it as a misdemeanor. But if the accident caused serious injury, it might be charged as a felony, and a charge can be changed as the status of the victim changes.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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