Understanding Misdemeanors and Their Classes in Virginia

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It is common for states to group criminal charges into lesser offenses—misdemeanors—and more serious offenses, termed felonies. Virginia follows this practice.

Felonies are defined as any state crime that might send a defendant to state prison. Misdemeanors are broken down into several levels, but even the most serious cannot send a convict to prison, only to county jail.

Felonies vs. Misdemeanors in Virginia

Felonies are more serious crimes than misdemeanors in all states. In Virginia, all felonies have one thing in common: the risk of prison time. Most states divide crimes into two separate classifications based on their potential punishments, and Virginia is no exception.

If the potential sanction for an offense can send the defendant to a state prison for any length of time, the offense is defined as a felony. If the potential punishment set out in Virginia criminal statutes does not include a term in state prison, it is a misdemeanor.

Punishments for Felonies and Misdemeanors

A felony is, needless to say, a very serious criminal offense. This includes such charges as murder, rape or burglary with a deadly weapon. Felonies in the state are punished by prison time and sometimes death, since the death penalty is legal in Virginia.

Generally, misdemeanors in the Commonwealth of Virginia carry as potential punishment a term of up to a year in county prison and/or a fine. Virginia law also recognizes infractions, most often for traffic offenses. These are even less serious offenses and are not considered criminal in nature under the state codes.

Classes of Misdemeanor Charges

The word "misdemeanor" comes from the terms for bad (mis) and behavior (demeanor), but not all bad behavior is created equal. Virginia criminal codes assign misdemeanor offenses into four classification levels. They run from class 1, the most serious, to class 4, the least serious, with correspondingly serious punishments.

Class 1 Misdemeanors

Class 1 misdemeanors are crimes that may not be as serious as murder, but are serious nonetheless. They include such charges as domestic assault, petit larceny, driving under the influence and simple assault. These charges, if proved against a defendant, can result in jail sentences and fines.

Class 1 misdemeanors are punishable by up to 12 months in jail, a fine of up to $2,500, or both. Note that not every misdemeanor crime is classified in the codes. But when that happens, the crime will be charged as a class 1 misdemeanor.

Class 2 Misdemeanors

Traffic crimes and drug offenses are some of the types of crimes classified as Virginia level 2 misdemeanors. These include driving without a license, aggressive driving and possession of a schedule IV drug. The maximum potential jail time is six months, and the maximum fine is $1,000. The court can impose both jail time and a fine.

Class 3 Misdemeanors

If an individual trespasses on school property or is part of a group who fails to disperse when ordered to do so, they may be charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor—but there will be no jail time.

These are fine-only offenses with a maximum $500 fine. Other Class 3 misdemeanors include unintentional damage to property or monuments and possession of a schedule V controlled substance.

Class 4 Misdemeanors

Class 4 misdemeanors are the least serious of all Virginia misdemeanors. They are considered minor charges since they almost never involve actual injury to persons or property. Rather, they usually deal with potential danger or potential injury to others.

Like Class 3 misdemeanors, Class 4 misdemeanors are also fine-only offenses. But the maximum penalty is $250, half of the amount of the maximum potential fine for Class 3 misdemeanors. This lowest-level misdemeanor category includes such minor crimes as public intoxication and having an open container of alcohol.

Separate Courts for Criminal and Civil Actions

Virginia is similar to other states in that it has separate courts to deal with criminal and civil offenses. A criminal charge is brought by a state prosecutor in the name of the people of Virginia.

On the other side is the defendant, the person charged with a crime. For example, in a case entitled The People of Virginia vs. Ronald Rambo, public prosecutors are bringing the action and Mr. Rambo, is on the other side.

Civil Actions for Crimes in Virginia

In a civil case, no prosecutor is involved, and jail, prison time or criminal fines are not at issue. Rather, civil cases are most often brought for money damages, financial restitution for some wrongful act. Civil damages cannot be awarded in a criminal case.

For example, if Jane Doe brings a civil case against Ronald Rambo for defamation, she cannot do so in a criminal court. Rather, she files a civil action entitled Jane Doe vs. Ronald asking for compensation.

A person who is charged with a misdemeanor in Virginia might also be the subject of a civil lawsuit. However, since most Class 4 misdemeanors in Virginia generally don't directly injure a third party, most of these cases do not end up in civil court.

Classification of Felony Charges in Virginia

Like misdemeanors, felonies in Virginia are classified by the level of seriousness. Maximum prison time and fines go up as the level of seriousness rises. Felonies range from the very most serious crimes to the least serious, in this order:

  • Class 1 felony
  • Class 2 felony
  • Class 3 felony
  • Class 4 felony
  • Class 5 felony
  • Class 6 felony.

The punishments possible for each level of felony are set out in the Virginia Criminal Code Section 18.2-10 as:

  • Class 1 felonies:‌ Imprisonment for life and fine of not more than $100,000. Those 18 years of age or older at the time of the offense and those who are sentenced to imprisonment for life upon conviction of a Class 1 felony are not eligible for parole, good conduct allowance, or earned sentence credits or conditional release.
  • Class 2 felonies:‌ Imprisonment for life or for any term not less than 20 years and a fine of not more than $100,000.
  • Class 3 felonies:‌ Term of imprisonment of between five and 20 years and a fine of not more than $100,000.
  • Class 4 felonies:‌ Term of imprisonment of between two and 10 years and a fine of not more than $100,000.
  • Class 5 felonies:‌ Term of imprisonment of between one and 10 years or confinement in jail for not more than 12 months, or a fine of not more than $2,500, or both.
  • Class 6 felonies:‌ Term of imprisonment of between one and five years, or confinement in jail for not more than 12 months, or a fine of not more than $2,500, or both.

Generally, a court hearing a felony case where the defendant is convicted can impose either a sentence of imprisonment alone, or imprisonment together with a fine. However, in a case where the defendant is not a natural person, such as a corporation, the court shall impose only a fine.

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