The U.S. justice system sorts offenses into three different types of crimes. While they may be sorted differently from state to state, the three categories are consistent and hold different weight and carry different penalties depending on the severity of the offense. The three categories are infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. The court considers infractions as the lowest type of offense, while felonies are the highest. Here we will look at some of the differences between the three types of crimes.
The court considers infractions as the least severe of the types of crimes. Sometimes the court calls them violations. These are petty offenses that are typically punishable by fines, but no jail time can be awarded for these offenses. Because the court does not assign jail time or probation to these offenses, those charged with an infraction do not have a right to a jury trial. They can hire an attorney, but they will appear before a judge only, and the government has no constitutional duty to appoint an attorney for this type of offense. Often prosecutors do not appear on behalf of the governing authority over an infraction. The most common type of infraction is a moving violation or traffic citation. Florida considers traffic citations to be civil rather than criminal offenses.
Misdemeanors are criminal offenses that carry a maximum of a year in jail in Florida. However, jail time is not a requirement for this type of offense. Punishment for misdemeanors also includes fines, probation, and restitution. Restitution is when the judge orders a defendant to compensate the victim of the crime for losses suffered as a result of the crime. If the State charges a defendant with a misdemeanor, they have the right to a jury trial. The court appoints an attorney for defendants who cannot afford legal representation. Some states divide misdemeanors into classes or degrees in order to separate out those of a more severe nature and requiring a more severe punishment. Florida has divided misdemeanors into first and second degree misdemeanors. Second degree misdemeanors are punishable by up to 60 days in jail and/or 6 months of probation while first degree misdemeanors are punishable by up to 364 days in county jail and/or 364 days of probation.
Felonies are the most serious type of criminal offense. They often include serious physical harm or threat of harm. But not all felonies involve violence. Some “white-collar crimes” like fraud are included in this category. In addition, crimes that would otherwise be misdemeanors can be elevated to felony status for repeat offenders. Felonies do not necessarily result in jail time, however, felonies carry greater weight, so the potential for imprisonment ranges from a year at the low end to life in prison without parole. Some states still use the death penalty for this type of offense, depending on the severity of the crime. As with misdemeanors, the law divides felonies into classes or degrees of offense. In Florida, felonies are divided into:
- Third Degree: Up to 5 years in prison and/or 5 years of probation
- Second Degree: Up to 15 years in prison and/or 15 years of probation
- First Degree: Up to 30 years in prison and/or 30 years of probation
- First Degree Punishable by Life: Up to life in prison and/or life on probation
- Life Felony: Up to life in prison and/or life on probation
- Capital: Death in the case of 1st Degree murder or up to life in prison and/or life on probation.
A “wobbler” is a term that refers to offenses that could be prosecuted as either a felony or a misdemeanor. It can also be used to refer to an offense that was prosecuted as a felony but was downgraded to a misdemeanor at the time of sentencing.