In most jurisdictions, the most serious criminal offenses are classified as felony offenses, which carry a potential sentence of time in prison. A misdemeanor charge is less serious than a felony charge, with a shorter potential term of incarceration that would be spent in a county jail.
Some jurisdictions have moved away from the "misdemeanor" label, as with New Jersey which uses the term "disorderly person offense" to describe offenses that carry a maximum penalty of jail time. A few jurisdictions also have forms of misdemeanor or petty offenses that create only a local record instead of going onto the defendant's state criminal history abstract, or that are not classified as crimes at all.
Although the maximum potential punishment for a misdemeanor charge is lower than for a felony, and there are fewer consequences of conviction for most misdemeanor charges, the consequences of conviction can still be significant.
Many states break down misdemeanor offenses into classes, either alphabetically or numerically, and define a range of potential penalties for each class of misdemeanor. Within the criminal code, misdemeanors are assigned to a specific class, which can be cross-referenced to determine the potential punishment for the defined offense.
Although it's not a hard-and-fast rule, sentencing for a misdemeanor that carries a more severe penalty will also often result in a longer term of probation than would be given to somebody convicted of a lesser offense.
Sometimes the class of a misdemeanor will be based upon the economic harm associated with an offense, such as the value of the property that a defendant stole, attempted to steal, or damaged in the course of a crime.
Sometimes the class of a misdemeanor will change depending upon a defendant's prior criminal history. For example, a driving while impaired law or shoplifting statute may classify a second or subsequent offense as a higher class of misdemeanor, such that a repeat offender faces a potentially greater penalty than a first-time offender.
Some states do not use a classification system for misdemeanors, instead setting a default penalty for misdemeanor offenses (usually a maximum of 90 days in jail, a fine, or both), with any other penalty defined on a statute-by-statute basis. For states that use classification systems, although the specifics will vary, the general structure of penalties is likely to resemble the following:
Class A Misdemeanors (Level 1)
Class A or Level 1 misdemeanors are the most serious misdemeanors, and typically carry a maximum sentence of a year in the county jail. Potential fines may be in the thousands of dollars.
Class B Misdemeanors (Level 2)
Class B or Level 2 misdemeanors are of intermediate severity, and typically carry a sentence in the range of ninety to one-hundred-and-eighty days in jail. Potential fines will often be in the range of $500 to $2000.
Class C Misdemeanors (Level 3)
Class C or Level 3 misdemeanors are usually the least serious misdemeanor offenses. Depending on the state, they may carry a maximum jail sentence of thirty to ninety days. Potential fines will often be in the range of $250 - $1000.
Some states use more than three classes of misdemeanor, such that the least severe misdemeanor charge might be a "Class D" or "Level 4" misdemeanor, "unclassified" misdemeanor or a petty misdemeanor.
Although a misdemeanor conviction does not carry the same level of consequences as a felony conviction, all misdemeanor convictions carry potential long-term consequences for a convicted defendant, and some carry very significant consequences. For example:
Employment: Many misdemeanor convictions can significantly affect a defendant's employment. For example, an offense such as larceny or shoplifting is a crime that reflects on the defendant's honesty and trustworthiness, and may significantly affect their ability to obtain employment. An offense that appears on the defendant's driving record can significantly impair a defendant's ability to obtain employment that involves the use of a motor vehicle.
Driver's License: Some misdemeanor convictions will result in a driver's license suspension or revocation. Those charges are also likely to trigger significant increases in auto insurance premiums.
Sex Offender Registration: Some states require defendants convicted of offenses such as indecent exposure to register as sex offenders, such that their names appear on public registries and they may face restrictions on where they can reside or work.
Immigration: A misdemeanor conviction can complicate efforts to obtain a visa or enter the United States, and if violence is involved a more serious misdemeanor charge, such as a Class A battery offense carrying a potential penalty of a year or more in jail, may be cause for removal proceedings (deportation).
Trial Testimony: If you appear as a witness in a legal proceeding, you may be asked about a misdemeanor conviction that reflects on your honesty, or that is otherwise deemed relevant to the issues before the court.
Firearms Rights: A conviction of a charge that involves an act of domestic violence is likely to trigger a loss of firearms rights under state law or under the federal Lautenberg Amendment.
Other Civil Rights: Other civil rights may be affected by a misdemeanor conviction, based upon general principles of state law or the terms of a specific statute. For example, Texas forbids any person convicted of a misdemeanor theft from serving on a jury. If incarcerated, a defendant may be able to vote while in jail, but may have to take steps in advance of election day to exercise that right, such as by obtaining an absentee ballot.
Publicity: Sometimes a criminal charge or conviction will be reported in the local media, affecting a defendant's reputation, and thanks to the modern Internet search engine sometimes those media references will haunt a defendant for years.
Additionally, a defendant convicted of a misdemeanor is likely to have to serve a term of probation.
Some defendants may have to attend classes, substance abuse screenings, support group meetings, perform community service, undergo random drug testing, participate in a county work program, or have a similar requirement imposed upon them.
A convicted defendant must pay court costs and assessments on top of any fines ordered by the court, including probation supervision fees. A defendant who retains a lawyer will have to pay legal fees, and even with a court-appointed lawyer the defendant may be ordered to reimburse the county for the cost of legal services.
Defendants who are sentenced to jail may find that they are charged a per diem, an additional charge for each day they spend in jail.
Needless to say, the costs add up quickly.
If you are charged with a misdemeanor offense, you should take the charge seriously.
Consult a Criminal Defense Lawyer: Meet with a criminal defense attorney to learn about the possible and likely sentence for the charge based upon the facts of the case, your prior criminal history (if any), and the policies and practices of the court and prosecutor. If you are charged in federal court, try to meet with a lawyer who specializes in federal criminal defense.
Investigate Alternative Sentencing: Although their availability and eligibility may vary significantly based upon your age, the charge filed against you, and your prior record, investigate to determine if you are eligible for a disposition that will prevent the formal filing of a charge, or that will allow for a dismissal without conviction if you successfully complete a diversion program or the terms of a deferred sentence.
Don't Just Plead Guilty: In most cases, a defendant can get a plea bargain to a lesser charge, or sometimes an alternate disposition that does not involve a criminal conviction, simply by asking the prosecutor about possible plea bargains. Don't close that door by pleading guilty too early in the case.