The Three Classes of Crime in the United States | Infractions, Felonies, & Misdemeanors (Video)
Click here or on the image above to watch the video that accompanies this article. These pieces explain the distinctions between the three classes of crime in the United States
Note: The video is a preface to our series responding to the current tension between police and the public in many cities across the nation. The goal of the series is to educate people (especially young people) on the their rights when interacting with the police.[i]
The video and the article below are presented by Christian Attorney RL Johnson, a trial attorney with over a dozen years of juvenile law experience.
In America, the three classes of crime are infraction; misdemeanor; and, felony. This article reviews them in order of severity.
Here are the three classes of crime in the United States
A felony is as a grave crime (such as murder or rape) for which the punishment may be forfeiture of property; imprisonment for more than a year; and/or, death in 28 states in the U.S.[ii]
A state's penal or criminal code tells you whether a specific behavior is classified as a felony. Because felonies always include the possibility of imprisonment, a felony defendant is entitled to an attorney, a fair trial, and a trial by jury if demanded.
The term misdemeanor comes from term demeanor, which means “behavior toward others” and has come to literally mean “bad behavior toward others.”
Each state's criminal code specifies which outward conduct constitutes a misdemeanor. Common misdemeanors include possession of a controlled substance or drug without a prescription, minor theft, vandalism, perjury, prostitution, indecent exposure, trespassing, simple assault, resisting arrest, public intoxication, and DUI (Driving under the Influence).
But, the key distinction is that a misdemeanor is a crime less than a felony. However, like felonies, many misdemeanor charges also carry the possibility of imprisonment: So, the right to counsel, a fair trial, and a jury is also attached.
An infraction is a rule violation for which a penalty, usually in the form of a fine is imposed but for which there is no danger of imprisonment. Infractions include, things like drinking in public, littering, and jaywalking. As such, while there may be a right to notice and a hearing, there is no right to an attorney or to a jury because there’s no threat of jail or imprisonment.
Why Do these distinctions matter?
Well, because in many instances, we can’t undo mistakes that we make. By this, I am of course referring to criminal convictions, which can in some but not all instances be
expunged. That is, removed completely from the public records.[iii]
Now, every state places a limit on which crimes are eligible for expungement. As a matter of fact, states place limits on the minimum number of misdemeanors (usually no more than three (3)) and the minimum number of felonies (usually no more than one (1)) that a person can have before she or he may ask a court to expunge a criminal record.
For instance, a young person who wants to forcefully assert his or her legal rights during a police stop and who firmly believes that he or she occupies the moral high ground, is in fact laboring under a false belief if she or he takes matters to the extreme of ignoring law enforcement and simply walking, pulling, or running away from a police officer.
Conclusion: The Practical Problem
These cases frequently, appear in court as assaulting, resisting, or obstructing a police officer, which by the way is a felony. As such, if convicted a great deal of time and effort will be required to expunge this young person’s record, which usually can’t be done until after the young person reaches the age of majority.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is offered for educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for legal advice and is not customized to your particular needs. Before undertaking self-representation, we urge you to consult with an attorney licensed to practice in your state.
[i] The U.S. Supreme Court established an open season on motorists in 1996 when it ruled that police could use any traffic offense as an excuse to pull a car over. This roadside detention may then be used as a pretext for searching the car and its occupants. In Michigan, as in most states, the vehicle code is a voluminous detailing of driving regulations, from the required depth of tire tread to the distance over which a driver must signal before turning. Virtually every driver will violate the vehicle code in some way during a short drive. These relatively minor offenses must necessarily be enforced on a selective basis and no
other area of policing involves a greater use of officer discretion.
[ii] Source: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/state-and-federal-info/state-by-state [iii] Note: There is no general federal expungement statute, and federal courts have no inherent authority to expunge records of a valid federal conviction. See, e.g., United States v. Jane Doe, 833 F.3d 192 (2d Cir. 2016), vacating 110 F. Supp. 3d 448 (E.D.N.Y. 2015); United States v. Crowell, 374 F.3d 790, 792-93 (9th 2004), cert. denied, 543 U.S. 1070 (2005).
However, some courts have held that federal courts have inherent ancillary authority to expunge criminal records where an arrest or conviction is found to be invalid or a clerical error is made. United States v. Sumner, 226 F.3d 1005, 1014 (9th Cir. 2000); see cases collected in Jane Doe v. United States, 110 F. Supp. 3d 448, 454, n. 16 (E.D.N.Y 2015); Hall v. Alabama, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14082, at *22-30 (M.D. Ala. 2010).
Occasionally, courts have agreed to expunge an arrest record upon a showing of need where the government did not object. See, e.g., United States v. McKnight, Case No. 07-mj-1218-SKG, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 95484,2014 (2014); United States v. Bohr, 406 F.Supp. 1218, 1219 (E.D. Wis. 1976).