In the United States federal criminal code, crimes are divided into two broad categories: misdemeanors and felonies. The distinction here is one of maximum punishment; misdemeanors are crimes that carry a maximum of twelve months incarceration (jail time) and felonies are those crimes that have punishments in excess of twelve months incarceration.
A crime can have the same general classification but be broken down into several levels of severity, some of which may raise the seriousness from a misdemeanor to a felony.
A good example of multiple levels of severity is the general class of crime referred to as assault. In the case of assault, threatening to cause harm to a person but not carrying through on the threat would be classified as a misdemeanor. Assault that resulted in actual bodily injury, or in which a weapon was used as part of the assault, would be considered a felony.
Theft is another example of a crime that has differing levels of severity. Petty theft is the unlawful taking of property or money from another person without their consent. The distinction between whether theft is a misdemeanor or a felony is dependent on the value of the cash or property stolen. Many states consider theft of up to $500 a misdemeanor and larger amounts to be a felony. Felony theft is often referred to as larceny.
Other crimes are distinguished as being misdemeanors or felonies depending on whom the crime is committed against. The crime of indecent exposure falls into this category. Exposing one's private parts in public in such a way as to alarm others is considered to be a misdemeanor. However, if the exposure is before a child, then the crime rises to the level of a felony. Different states set different age limits as to where the line exists between misdemeanor and felony indecent exposure.
In most instances, traffic violations are classified as misdemeanors. Examples of misdemeanor traffic violations include:
Felony traffic violations include: leaving the scene of an accident and vehicular homicide.
Another potential felony traffic infraction is repeated DUI's. In this case, many states upgrade repeated charges of DUI from misdemeanor to felony status. While the criminal act being committed is the same, multiple violations can result in a felony charge that carries harsher punishments.
The primary difference between misdemeanors and felonies is the amount of jail time that a convicted offender can be sentenced to serve. Many felonies are also broken down into classifications, or levels of seriousness, according to what punishments may be imposed.
Felonies that are broken down into these differing classifications include:
These felonies can be classified from Class E or F felonies such as the lowest levels of theft up to Class A felonies which carry a life's sentence in prison or the death penalty. Class A felonies are generally murder or first degree intentional homicide.
The classification of misdemeanors and felonies is legally based on the severity of punishments and the most severe of punishments are reserved for the most serious offense. Traffic violations, trespass, petty theft and similar offenses are misdemeanors and depending on the state, carry maximum jail times of between 6 months and 1 year. The attendant fines are also limited to relatively small amounts of money, generally $1000 to $2000 maximum.
Felonies such as murder, rape, arson and kidnapping are substantially more serious and all carry jail times of at least one year and in most cases, substantially greater terms of incarceration. At the most severe level of felony classification, Class A, the maximum penalty can be life in prison without parole or the death penalty.