What do voter intimidation, chopping down a tree in a national park, being a stowaway, failing to pay child support, and counterfeiting have in common? Surprisingly, there’s a link: they’re all examples of federal misdemeanors. What’s more, that list barely scratches the surface of the complete list of minor federal offenses.
Still, that diverse grouping of violations does beg the question: what’s the difference between a federal and a state misdemeanor? And equally, how does a misdemeanor differ from a felony?
This easy-to-read guide has the answers. We’ll explain the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony, the most common examples, how cases are split between state and federal courts, how the federal trial system works, and the consequences of a guilty verdict.
Both federal and state laws draw distinctions between a felony and a misdemeanor. Simply put, a felony is more serious than a misdemeanor. It’s also a question of degree. A battery case (like slapping someone) might be classified as a misdemeanor, but the more serious charge of aggravated battery (causing them actual bodily harm) is a felony.
In passing, we should also note that a federal offense often incurs greater sanctions than its state equivalent. Moreover, very low-level offenses, like littering or parking infringements, are referred to as infractions.
It should come as no surprise that penalties are more severe for a felony than they are for a misdemeanor and that the worse the offense, the harsher the sentence. There are also some practical differences when it comes to the trial. If you’re facing a felony charge, you can opt for trial by jury or trial by judge (a bench trial). Compare that to a misdemeanor charge, where a bench trial may be your only option, especially for relatively minor charges.
Another significant difference concerns sentencing. In fact, under the federal system, the length of a sentence is actually used to define what constitutes a misdemeanor or felony. If the minimum jail sentence for the offense is less than one year, it counts as a misdemeanor. Any longer than that, and the crime becomes a felony.
If you’re found guilty of a felony, there’s a good chance you’ll end up in prison, but that’s often not the case with a misdemeanor. Alternative punishments for lesser crimes include fines, probation, rehabilitation orders, and community service.
One final point worth remembering is repeat offenders may find that a subsequent misdemeanor charge is upgraded to a felony.
Almost all criminal prosecutions take place in a state court. A case only goes through the federal system if there’s a federal interest. There are essentially three types of federal interest: first, where there’s a cross-state, national, or international dimension to the crime; second, where the crime is perpetrated against a federal employee, agency, department, or land; and third, certain areas of the law - like immigration, customs, and maritime matters - have traditionally come under the umbrella of the federal courts.
Occasionally, there’s an overlap between state and federal law. When that happens, it’s up to the respective prosecutors to decide which court takes precedence. Even if you’re found not guilty in a federal court of law, you could still face prosecution at the state level.
We’d be here a very long time if we listed every single misdemeanor on the statute book. Petty theft, fraud, public intoxication, and possession of cannabis are all common examples. Here are some of the other offenses that frequently appear before the courts:
Drunk driving is one of those “either/or” offenses. For a first offense where you’re only just over the limit, you’re probably looking at a misdemeanor charge. But if it’s your third time, you’re way over the limit, and you knocked down a child when passing a school bus, you can expect to be charged with a felony.
Disobeying the orders of a police officer or federal agent is never a good idea, and that includes resisting arrest. If it’s your word against a state official, you can probably guess which way the judge will rule. Worse, you could be facing 90 days in jail, a fine of $1,000, or both, even if you aren’t charged for any other offense.
Online stalking and bullying are newer offenses, and it could be argued that the authorities were slow in introducing legislation. While all states have stalking and bullying laws in place, federal law often applies in cyberstalking cases because perpetrators and victims may live in different states.
If you’re on federal land where you shouldn’t be or vandalize property that belongs to the state, you could find yourself facing trial in a federal court. Defacing or destroying state property can have serious ramifications, especially if it was done with intent.
Although it’s not as bad as a felony charge, being accused of a federal misdemeanor is still a severe matter. If you’re found guilty, you could face significant fines, penalties, and even time in jail. That’s why it’s so vital to have the best possible legal representation.
If you’re charged with a federal offense, you need to employ a lawyer with experience in the federal system. A trusted attorney will protect your rights, ensure due process, and represent you effectively in court. Where applicable, they can also negotiate on your behalf to achieve the best possible plea agreement.
Federal law differs from state law in many ways, so it’s essential to work with an attorney familiar with the area. For anyone accused of a federal misdemeanor, the experienced team at Marble can guide you through the complete court process and advise you on all your options. Call us now for a free case assessment.