One of the types of offenses punishable under criminal law is a misdemeanor. In this article, we’ll define the term “misdemeanor,” give some examples, explain the misdemeanor classification system, and discuss misdemeanor sentencing. 

Key Takeaways

  • A misdemeanor is an offense punishable under criminal law that is minor enough to be punished by no more than one year in prison
  • Misdemeanors are usually less violent, dangerous, or harmful than felonies
  • Examples of misdemeanors include prostitution, reckless driving, being drunk in public, and trespassing
  • Many states classify misdemeanors under different categories based on how serious the crime and its punishment are
  • Jail sentences for misdemeanors are usually served in local country jails rather than high-security prisons

What Is a Misdemeanor?

A misdemeanor is a type of offense punishable under criminal law. Generally speaking, a misdemeanor is a crime minor enough to be punishable by no more than one year in prison. Other common punishments for misdemeanors include:

  • Community service
  • Probation
  • Fines

Crimes that do not qualify as misdemeanors will be classified as either felonies or citations.

Examples of Misdemeanors

Misdemeanors are usually crimes that are thought to be less violence, dangerous, or harmful to society than felonies. Some examples of crimes that are usually classified as misdemeanors include:

  • Domestic violence
  • Prostitution
  • Leaving an animal unattended in a vehicle causing significant injury
  • Reckless driving
  • Tampering with evidence 
  • Being drunk in public
  • Driving under the influence without an injury 
  • Petty theft
  • Simple assault
  • Drug possession
  • Shoplifting
  • Trespassing 
  • Driving on a suspended license 
  • Vehicle registration fraud 
  • Indecent exposure

Classification of Misdemeanors

In many states, misdemeanors are classified under different categories depending on how serious the crime and its punishment are. States that do not classify misdemeanors by categories sentence on a crime-by-crime basis. 

In most states, misdemeanors are classified as such:

  • Class A: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is one year or less but more than six months
  • Class B: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is six months or less but more than thirty days
  • Class C: if the maximum term of imprisonment authorized is thirty days or less but more than five days

Misdemeanor Sentencing

Typically, jail time for misdemeanors is served in local county jails instead of high security prisons. Prosecutors usually have quite a bit of flexibility in deciding what misdemeanors to charge, how to punish them, and what kind of plea bargains to negotiate for them. 

There are also certain crimes known as “wobblers” that can be charged as either felonies or misdemeanors depending on the circumstances of the crime. The defense can use certain facts, such as if the crime was committed without a weapon, to try to have the crime sentenced as a misdemeanor rather than as a felony.

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