All crimes are not equally egregious in the eyes of the law. All states recognize distinct categories of crime, including the most serious crimes known as felonies and the less serious crimes known as misdemeanors. The very least serious crimes are termed infractions. They may occasionally be termed violations or summary offenses.
Categories of Crimes
Everyone agrees that some crimes are worse than others. For example, few would disagree that murder is worse than shoplifting, and grand theft is, by definition, worse than petty theft.
State legislators have the job of dividing types of crimes into categories. They base their decisions on a variety of different factors including the public's current sense of the seriousness of an offense.
The categories used to classify crimes are usually three: felonies, misdemeanors and infractions or summary offenses. Curiously, the distinctions between the categories are often based on the maximum punishment allowed for the specific crime.
Read More: Five Categories of Crime and the Rank of Seriousness
Felonies vs. Misdemeanors
In most states, a felony is distinguished from a misdemeanor by the maximum punishment a crime carries. For example, in California a crime is classified as a misdemeanor if the maximum penalty a person can get for conviction is less than one year in jail. If a crime in California carries a maximum penalty exceeding one year in jail, California classifies it as a felony.
It's notable that the misdemeanor distinction was a year or less in jail, but California – along with some other states – dropped the maximum imprisonment for misdemeanors from 365 to 364 days. The change was intended to avoid triggering deportation laws for people receiving a full one-year misdemeanor sentence.
Infractions or Summary Offenses
Some offenses are considered so petty that they are typically not punished by jail time. Instead, offenders are required to pay fines. These crimes are called infractions, violations or summary offenses.
Those charged with infractions are not entitled to the usual rights of a criminal defendant, like the right to a jury trial and the right to an appointed lawyer. That is because they cannot result in a jail sentence or probation.
Examples of Infractions
The most common types of infraction are traffic offenses, violations of local laws intended to deter dangerous or nuisance behavior. For example, violating speed limits in school zones is an infraction, as is parking in a no-parking zones or driving without a muffler. But there are non-traffic infractions as well, like operating a business without the proper license or improperly disposing of trash.
The definition for infractions can be very vague. For example, in Arizona law, they are defined as offenses that are not designated as either a felony or a misdemeanor. These low-level offenses are considered civil offenses rather than criminal offenses in some states. In many cases, a person with an infraction charge can simply pay the fine without going to court.
Felony vs. Misdemeanor Wobbler Offenses
Not every crime is lumped forever into one category or another. Some states, like California, have laws for "wobblers." These are crimes that give a prosecutor the discretion to charge them either as felonies or misdemeanors. Usually, the decision depends on the circumstances of the crime and the prior criminal history of the person charged with the offense.
For example, if someone is arrested in California for the crime of assault with a deadly weapon, the law specifies that the punishment for this offense can be either less than one year in jail or up to five years in prison. The prosecutor can charge the crime as a felony or a misdemeanor. If ultimately the defendant received a sentence of less than a year in jail, the conviction is a misdemeanor.
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.