If you’ve been charged with a criminal offense, you are probably feeling overwhelmed and anxious. After all, your freedom – maybe even your life – is at stake. Our criminal justice system is extremely complex, and can be nearly impossible to navigate if you don’t understand criminal law and procedure. However, a basic understanding of the system is vital to ensure that you are afforded all of rights the law grants to criminal defendants. Most importantly, you need to understand the different ways our system classifies criminal offenses, and where the charges you are facing stand on that spectrum. This classification will determine what rights you have as a defendant, as well as the penalties and sanctions you could face if you are found guilty of the charges levied against you.
Types of Criminal Offenses
Our justices system recognizes several types of criminal offenses, including:
- Crimes against the Person: Crimes committed using direct harm or force against the victim, such as murder, rape or assault.
- Crime against Property: Crimes committed by damaging or intruding on the property of another.
- Theft and Fraud Crimes: Crimes that involve illegally taking a victim’s property.
- Crimes Against Public Order: Some examples include disorderly conduct, public lewdness, and prostitution
- Drug Related Crimes
Depending on their severity, each type of criminal offense can be further classified as an infraction, misdemeanor or felony. For example, the value of property taken in a theft or fraud crime will determine whether or not it is deemed to be a felony or a misdemeanor. Drug crimes can be classified as either, depending upon the amount of illegal drugs involved. While crimes against public order are almost always misdemeanors, they can rise to the level of felony if a minor child is a victim.
Classification of Criminal Offenses
Infractions or Petty Offenses
Depending on the state where it is committed, an infraction may encompass a violation of a local or municipal code, ordinance or traffic rule. In most cases, defendants found guilty of an infraction are sentenced to pay a fine, perform community service, or a combination of the two. In the very rare cases where jail time is ordered, most sentences will be carried out at a local jail, rather than a state penitentiary. While individuals who have been charged with an infraction may hire a criminal defense lawyer at their own expense, the court is under no obligation to appoint an attorney on their behalf if the defendant is unable to afford one. If you’ve been charged with a minor infraction, you won’t have a right to a jury trial.
Misdemeanors mark the next level of severity in the classification of criminal offenses, and are punishable by up to a year in jail. However, sanctions for misdemeanors can also include fines, probation, community service, and restitution. Typical misdemeanor crimes might include public intoxication, trespassing, prostitution, or vandalism. Most states classify misdemeanors by their degree of severity, with the most severe offenses classified as “gross” misdemeanors. In certain cases, states may provide for misdemeanors to be elevated to felony status if there are extenuating circumstances, or if the defendant is deemed a repeat offender. Individuals charged with a misdemeanor criminal offense have a right to a trial by jury, as well as an attorney. The court must appoint a criminal defense lawyer to represent any defendant who is deemed indigent
Felonies are the most serious class of criminal offense, and penalties almost always include jail time, including life in prison, and possibly even the death penalty, for the most serious types of murder. Like misdemeanors, felonies are classified in most states by degree according to their severity. For example, first degree murder charges may be levied against a defendant in a homicide case if there is evidence of premeditation. However, if a killing is deemed unlawful, but there is no evidence of deliberation, premeditation, or malice, the defendant could be charged with manslaughter, a lesser felony offense. Defendants charged with a felony criminal offense always have a right to trial by jury and legal representation. In cases where a defendant can’t afford their own attorney, the court is legally obligated to appoint an attorney on their behalf.