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Understanding the difference between misdemeanors and felonies

Understanding the difference between misdemeanors and felonies

Even if they’ve never had any encounter with the court system, there are certain principles of criminal law with which most people are familiar thanks to popular television shows and films.

For example, most people know police officers will need a warrant to search their home and that they must be read their Miranda rights if they are placed under arrest. Furthermore, most know that a misdemeanor is a lesser offense in the eyes of the law than a felony.

While this latter point is certainly true, it’s nevertheless important to understand how exactly these two classes of crimes are defined and treated under state law.


Under state law, misdemeanors are defined as offenses, other than traffic violations, punishable by more than 15 days but less than one year of imprisonment. In addition, misdemeanors are defined by their placement into one of three categories:

  • Class A: Punishable by up to one year in jail or three years probation, and/or a fine of up to $1,000 or twice the amount of funds secured by the defendant via the criminal activity
  • Class B: Punishable by up to three months in jail or one year probation, and/or a fine of up to $500 or twice the amount of the funds secured by the defendant via the criminal activity
  • Unclassified: Punishable by more than 15 days but less than one year in jail, and reserved for those misdemeanor offenses otherwise undefined under New York State Penal Law


Under New York law, felonies are defined as offenses punishable by more than one year of imprisonment. Like misdemeanors, felonies are subdivided. However, they are placed into one of six categories — A-I, A-II, B, C, D and E — with E being the least serious.

While a complete breakdown of the state’s rather complex felony sentencing structure is clearly beyond the scope of a single blog post, it’s important to know that there are roughly two types of felony sentences:

  • Determinate: A sentence for a set number of years that a person will be required to serve.
  • Indeterminate: A sentence that establishes a range, such that when a person serves the minimum amount of time handed down by the judge, he or she becomes eligible for parole. If parole is denied, the defendant serves no more than the maximum established by the range.

As far as the issue of “degrees” are concerned, they dictate the seriousness of the offense for both felonies and misdemeanors. For example, arson in the fifth degree is a Class A misdemeanor, while arson in the first degree is a Class A-I felony.

Here’s hoping the foregoing information has proven helpful. Please remember to consider speaking with a skilled legal professional if you’ve been charged with any criminal offense — particularly major felonies — as your freedom and your future are on the line.

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