Criminal Law


Almost every state classifies crimes as either a "misdemeanor" or a felony. Generally, felonies are very serious crimes that are punishable by imprisonment in the state's prison or penitentiary for one or more years, payment of a fine, or both. Good examples are murder and rape. Misdemeanors, on the other hand, are less serious crimes that usually are punishable by a fine, confinement in a county or local jail for several days or months, or both.

Generally, misdemeanors can be separated according to what's threatened, that is, human life or property. Also, many states classify misdemeanors upon their seriousness and the severity of the punishment. For example, you may hear about "first degree" or "second degree" misdemeanors or "class A" or "class B" misdemeanors. For instance, stealing:

  • $500 may be a second degree misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail and $500 fine.
  • $1,500 worth of property from someone may be a first degree misdemeanor and may have a maximum punishment of three months in jail and a $2,000 fine.

This all varies from state to state. Likewise, a crime may be a misdemeanor in one state but not in another state. For example, stealing property worth $500 in one state may be a felony in one state but only a misdemeanor in another state.

Below are descriptions of some of the most common misdemeanors that you may hear or read about. The names of the crimes, however, may be different in your state.

Crimes Against Persons

Simple assault: Sometimes called "assault and battery" or "battery," this crime is when you try to or actually cause another person to suffer a bodily injury. For example, punching someone in a barroom fight is an assault. Likewise, threatening to hurt someone without physically touching him may be a misdemeanor assault, too. This crime may be felony if you cause serious bodily injury and/or you use or threaten to use a dangerous weapon, like a gun or a knife.

Disorderly conduct: Also called "disturbing the peace," this crime typically involves unruly or raucous behavior in public places. Many things can fall into the category of "disorderly conduct," such as public drunkenness or intoxication; fighting; obstructing traffic; disturbing a peaceful assembly, like a speech in a park or public square; loitering; and making loud and unreasonable noise, like driving with your car stereo too loud.

DUI/DWI (driving while intoxicated, driving while under the influence, driving while impaired): This crime involves operating some type of vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, either illegal drugs or even prescription or over-the-counter medications. In most states, "vehicle" covers more than cars, and includes boats, motorcycles, bicycles and farm machinery. In addition, each state has specific laws on detecting the level of alcohol or drugs in an operator's body. In most states, a driver's first two DUI/DWI convictions are misdemeanors, and any later conviction(s) may be treated as a felony.

Domestic violence: Generally, this crime is an assault and battery committed by one household member against another. In most states, this includes not only spouses and children, but also ex-spouses and persons who live together in the same home. Some states even include persons who are dating. In many states, domestic violence is a misdemeanor for the first two convictions, and it's treated as a felony on the third and any later conviction.

Drug possession: As a misdemeanor, this crime usually involves the possession of a small amount of illegal drugs or narcotics, usually marijuana. It may also include the unlawful possession of a small amount of prescription drugs. Most states have "schedules" that classify the various types of drugs according to their danger for things like the potential for abuse and dependency or addiction, as well as for legitimate medical use. Also, most state laws set out in detail the quantity of each drug a person may possess for purposes of charging the possession as a misdemeanor or felony crime.

Prostitution: This crime is committed when someone asks for or offers to give some form of sexual contact, usually sexual intercourse, in exchange for something of value, usually money. In most states, there's no need for money to change hands or for a sexual act to happen. A person can be prosecuted for prostitution as soon as there's agreement that sexual favors will be exchanged for something of value.

Crimes against Property

Theft: Also called "larceny," this crime involves taking something of value without the owner's consent, with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the thing.Shoplifting is a good example of theft. In most states, the severity of the crime depends upon the value of the property taken. For example, taking a candy bar from a drug store may be low-grade misdemeanor theft punishable by a fine, but stealing a car may be a higher misdemeanor crime punishable by a fine and jail time. Also, in many states, theft includes "receiving" or "possessing" stolen property. And "property" includes anything that has value, such as personal property, like clothing and jewelry; money; and services, like telephone and cable service.

Trespass: Generally, if someone enters onto another person's property without permission or legal authority to do so, and if he knows or should have known that he has no right to enter the land (such as when there are "No Trespassing" signs posted or the land is fenced), then he's committed the crime of trespass.

Vandalism: Sometimes called "criminal damaging," this crime is committed when someone destroys, defaces or damages another person's property without the property owner's permission or consent. Painting graffiti on a building; throwing rocks or eggs at someone else's home or car; and tearing down a portion of a neighbor's fence are good examples.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • In my state, it's legal for me to have a certain amount of marijuana for medical use. If I go out of state, can I be charged with a crime for possessing that marijuana?
  • Can I be charged with misdemeanor domestic violence even though my wife has told the police and the prosecuting attorney that she doesn't want to press charges against me?
  • As a prank, some friends and I broke into an old abandoned building and spray painted some pictures on the wall and broke some windows. We've been charged with vandalism and trespass. Why? The building is worthless, and we heard that the owner was going to tear it down anyway.
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